“Can’t Just Stop” All Kinds of Compulsions

While extreme compulsions often appear odd, irrational, pitiable and self-destructive, our emerging understanding of compulsions implies something quite different: Even the craziest-looking compulsions are adaptive, even pragmatic, and all too human. A compulsion is at once psychological balm and curse, surface madness (or at least eccentricity) and profound relief. Sharon Begley, author of Can’t Just Stop (Wall Street Journal)

Behaviors such as OCD, hoarding, exercise, shopping, video-gaming, hyper-conscientiousness, and even hyper-do-gooding—which can all be responses to anxiety—are examined in Can’t Just Stop: An Investigation of Compulsions by science journalist Sharon Begley (1956-2021).

Compulsions “are repetitive behaviors that we engage in repeatedly to alleviate the angst brought on by the possibility of harmful consequences,” states Begley. Examples of compulsions of varying levels of severity are offered (Wall Street Journal):

There’s the woman who hit the treadmill so compulsively that she could do little else—and all because, every moment that she wasn’t exercising, the thought of fat cells proliferating in her body drove her nearly mad with anxiety. There’s the actor who was so certain he suffered from a dire illness that he compulsively pressed his doctors to give him CT scans, over and over, to assuage his angst. And there are the millions of us who feel compelled to check our phones before we get out of bed in the morning and constantly throughout the day, because FOMO—the fear of missing out—fills us with so much anxiety that it feels like fire ants swarming every neuron in our brain.

Publishers Weekly notes that Begley’s research and writing “demystifies compulsive behavior, exploring its history and manifestations and the many difficulties its sufferers face in finding appropriate diagnoses and treatment.”

Selected Quotes from Can’t Just Stop

The saddest thing I came to understand in researching and reporting this book is that so many of our behaviors draw us into them not because they bring joy but because they promise to quiet anxiety. But the most heartening thing was the realization that the ability of compulsive behaviors to quiet anxieties great and small is one of the greatest gifts our brains can give us.

For compulsions, according to a growing body of scientific evidence, are a response to anxiety. Suffused and overwhelmed by anxiety, we grab hold of any behavior that offers relief by providing even an illusion of control.

We cling to compulsions as if to a lifeline, for it is only by engaging in compulsions that we can drain enough of our anxiety to function.

Selected Reviews of Can’t Just Stop

Joel Gold, MD: “At once fascinating and compassionate, funny and informative, this volume should be on the bookshelf of every psychiatrist, and on the nightstand of anyone who enjoys absorbing and incisive writing.”

Gary Greenberg, therapist and author: “Sharon Begley has done us all a service, writing about compulsion without writing about disease and offering a new perspective on a phenomenon that is common if not universal. People troubled by their own compulsive behavior will appreciate her nuanced and balanced approach and perhaps come away with a new understanding of themselves.”

Publishers Weekly: “Begley’s final chapter on brain function in the compulsive mind contains fresh insight that could fundamentally alter how we think of, and treat, mental illness going forward.”

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