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Compulsion, Obsession, and Preoccupation: The Elements of Addiction

Man looking depressed sitting on the floor with head down in office

Compulsion, obsession, and preoccupation are the major elements of addiction. These elements explain the development and continuation of addictive behavior. Understanding them can help you recognize how someone can become addicted and why they can’t just stop the addictive behavior, even when they want to.

Understanding the Basics of Sex Addiction

Sex addiction, also known as compulsive sexual behavior or hypersexuality disorder, is an excessive preoccupation with sexual fantasies, urges, or behaviors that a person can’t control. It causes them severe emotional distress and can negatively affect their mental and physical health, job, and relationships.

Addiction is not a matter of weak willpower or poor self-control. It affects how the brain functions and often begins with attempting to cope with unresolved trauma. 

Addiction alters the brain’s reward system, making people feel good when they satisfy an urge with certain behaviors. The reward system is a complex set of neural pathways reliant on hormones like dopamine. Addiction causes the brain to crave increasing amounts of dopamine to feel well.

“Most people who have compulsive sexual behaviors don’t initially know they’re addicts, according to T.C. Ryan, author of “Ashamed No More: A Pastor’s Journey Through Sex Addiction” and Pastoral Consultant at Boulder Recovery. 

“Instead, they may see themselves as open to sexual experimentation, or they dismiss certain activities as mistakes or errors in judgment that aren’t a big deal,” he wrote.

Once the person realizes there’s a problem, it’s too late.

“All of us rationalize patterns that develop in our lives,” T.C. wrote. “A seemingly innocuous behavior grew into a huge problem without us realizing what was going on.”

The Elements of Addiction

In his book, “Addiction and Grace,” Gerald May wrote that addiction is “a state of compulsion, obsession, or preoccupation that enslaves a person’s will and desire.” 

T.C. agrees with this definition and says, “Compulsion, obsession, or preoccupation are the key components an addict has to confront. These factors are essential to consider in relation to any addiction and how it affects the individual and those around them.”

Understanding each element gives a better perspective for empathy and support when living with an addiction.

“All of these elements represent what it’s like to be enslaved to an addiction,” T.C. wrote. “The person can’t just stop once they’ve crossed the line into compulsive behavior.”

The Element of Compulsion 

Motivation is a tricky concept, especially when rooted in an unhealthy source.

“Compulsion means however rationally absurd the motivation for a behavior is, the person finds it irresistible,” T.C. wrote.

Compulsion is a mental state in which you act regardless of personal desires or the consequences of your actions. These actions are usually repetitive and often unpleasant behaviors you feel compelled to perform repeatedly.

Compulsive behaviors aren’t just about the act itself but about how the compulsion makes you feel when you engage in the behavior. Compulsive behavior can be spontaneous or planned, but it generates an out-of-control feeling.

Compulsion in sex addiction looks like:

  • An overwhelming urge to have sex 
  • A sudden need to watch porn
  • Experiencing emotional release after sex
  • Excusing or justifying the behavior

The Element of Obsession

Compulsion, combined with obsession, as elements of sex addiction, helps perpetuate a seemingly endless cycle of undesired behavior.

“Obsession is an unwanted feeling, idea, or thought fixated in a person’s consciousness to the point that he simply cannot rationalize it away or avoid it,” T.C. wrote.

The problem with obsessions is that they aren’t a cure. They simply mask the underlying cause of your anxiety, stress, or trauma. If you’re obsessing about something, you’re likely tempted to relieve that feeling by fulfilling a sexual urge. Unfortunately, this approach buries the negative emotions and ultimately generates more problems instead of addressing its source.

Obsessions rule your time. They may take up so much of your life that it interferes with responsibilities and relationships. If you can’t avoid or ignore the behavior and find it consumes your thoughts and time, it’s likely causing distress in your life.

Obsession with sex addiction looks like:

  • Intrusive thoughts
  • A sense of overwhelm from the addiction
  • A desire to remove the feeling and addiction

The Element of Preoccupation

Obsession and compulsion often result in preoccupation, especially as these elements of sex addiction are so time-consuming.

“Preoccupation means a person’s mind is so engrossed with the impulse or thought he actually cannot successfully redirect his attention to anything else for a lengthy time,” T.C. wrote.

Preoccupation causes constant thinking about the addiction, your motivations for the behavior, and anticipation of the next time you can find relief. You may think about avoiding negative emotions again or fantasize about your next opportunity for relief. 

Preoccupation becomes an obsession when you can’t stop thinking about relieving your sexual impulses. This thought process becomes so strong that it interrupts your life, causing you to act on your impulses. Consistent fulfillment of these urges can result in neglect of family and friends and making decisions that negatively affect your career, finances, and health. 

Preoccupation with sex addiction looks like:

  • Fantasizing about previously watched pornography
  • Intentional neglect of other responsibilities to act on sexual urges
  • Consistently prioritizing time for sexual relief

A Greater Understanding of Addiction

When you experience a loved one with addiction, or if you have an addiction, you probably wonder why it just won’t stop. If you want it to end, it should, right? But addiction isn’t that simple.

Addiction requires that you understand how it happened, recognize that you have an addiction, and fully commit yourself to recovery.

“While it’s important to understand addiction,” T.C. wrote, “Understanding how addiction works doesn’t dismiss a person’s responsibility for their behavior. It simply helps other people understand what the addict is up against. 

“It explains why the person’s bad behavior does not respond to normal attempts at self-control. Understanding addiction explains why an addiction does not — and indeed, cannot — respond the way most people do when they try to conform to commonly agreed-upon standards of appropriate behavior.”

This understanding may help you and your loved ones recognize why you need support in healing and starting recovery.

Getting Help for Sex Addiction

It’s difficult to admit that you need help for addiction. It may be even more challenging if you’re a Christian because of misconceptions surrounding addiction. For example, Christians may pray for their addictions to just end when they need help from a mental health professional to heal.

Sex addiction can’t be overcome by just saying “no” or praying harder. But there is hope for recovery if you’re committed to getting better.

Treatment for sex addiction for Christians helps men restore their faith, uncover the root cause of their addiction, heal from that trauma, and change their behaviors. Recovery from the elements of addiction is possible.

Reducing Addictive Elements In Your Life

If you or someone you love is attempting to cope with the elements of addiction, it doesn’t have to happen alone. Boulder Recovery can help. We offer treatment for men with porn, sex, and intimacy issues through our 14-day Christian Men’s Intensive program. Contact us today to begin your healing journey.

  • Category: AddictionChristian Therapy
  • By Begin Again Institute
  • September 6, 2023

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