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Compulsive behaviors are those things we are repeatedly driven to do in response to unpleasant feelings, such as anxiety or anger. These might include a cigarette in response to a bad day at work, or playing the pokies after a fight with ones partner. Its human nature to develop habitual responses and we all engage in compulsive behaviours to some degree. But when the relationship between stressor and behavioural response becomes very strong and is occurring frequently compulsivity can become problematic. Extreme cases of this can be seen in substance (e.g. alcohol) and behavioural (e.g. gambling) addictions or obsessive compulsive disorder.
People who demonstrate sub-clinical (i.e. mild-moderate) patterns of compulsive behaviour also show many of the characteristics found in clinical populations. These include diminished social functioning, reduced self-control, greater incidence of anxiety/depression and changes in brain structure and function in circuits that govern habit formation. They are also at heightened risk for developing clinical compulsive conditions, such as addictions or obsessive compulsive disorder.
While there are a number of treatments for clinical compulsivity, such as cognitive behavioural therapy and various forms of psychopharmacology, there are no therapies for sub-clinical compulsivity. Two promising candidates are physical exercise and meditation.