A compulsion is a behavior designed to reduce psychic distress or discomfort due to factors such as depression or anxiety. Individuals engaging in compulsions typically feel an irresistible need to engage in the compulsive behavior. Everyday behaviors such as hand-washing, praying, and counting can become compulsions.

Compulsions are commonly associated with substance abuse and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Individuals with these conditions engage in the compulsive behavior not because they want to, but because they feel that they have to. Compulsions may also be minor and not rise to the level of mental illness. Many people have mild compulsions such as the need to regularly exercise, to engage in a certain amount of work, or to count their steps. Compulsions only become a part of a mental health diagnosis when they create distress, interfere with normal life, and/or endanger a person’s health.

People with substance dependencies engage in compulsive use of substances despite health, financial, and emotional consequences. In the case of substance abuse, the compulsion is frequently engaged in to avoid obsessive thoughts of the substance or to alleviate the symptoms of withdrawal.

What is Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder?
Obsessive-compulsive disorder is named for its obsessive and compulsive components. Obsessions are persistent, intrusive, and frequently unwanted thoughts that are usually the product of anxiety. Compulsions are the behaviors used to mitigate the obsessive thoughts. People with OCD engage in the compulsive behavior to relieve themselves of their obsessive thoughts. When they do not engage in the compulsive behavior, the obsessive thoughts persist.

Common examples of compulsive behaviors include:

  • Performing actions according to particular intervals or patterns, such as bathing a particular number of times, tapping an object, or ensuring that a person has a certain number of a particular item
  • Compulsive cleanliness such as repeated hand-washing, disinfecting, or cleaning
  • Compulsive skin picking or hair pulling

Routines are not the same as compulsions. People may feel some mild discomfort when they deviate from their regular routines such as bedtime rituals, driving patterns, or grooming routines. However, people without OCD who engage in routines do them out of habit rather than to avoid obsessive thoughts.


  1. American Psychological Association. APA concise dictionary of psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2009. Print.Kring, A. M., Johnson, S. L., Davison, G. C., & Neale, J. M. (2010). Abnormal psychology. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
  2. Mayo Clinic. (2010, December 15). Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. Mayo Clinic. Retrieved from

Last Updated: 08-4-2015

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  • Ellen

    April 15th, 2017 at 10:49 PM

    Love reading about anything in Psychology. I started out in college at Michigan State University as a psychology major, but during the Abnormal psych class, I thought the professor was NUTS , and so unfairly thought to myself,” I can’t work with people like THAT! so, I switched my major about 4 times, but all within the field of medicine. Not bad at all. Nursing school was too easy, science course levels were too low for my curiosity. So, I landed in Microbiology, which I loved because my classmates were premed students and that WAS challenging. If you did not receive an A, you considered yourself as having flunked. I liked it that way. I work well under pressure. Probably is the same reason I then went on to have 6 kids, which biologically was not supposed to happen. What a miracle! The end. Thank you for these articles.

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