Addiction vs Habit: What’s the Difference?

man writing a list

Addiction vs. habit. Believe it or not, they are something like cousins. A lot in common, but with one key caveat.

Humans need order. We thrive more in order than in chaos. Habits can help give us order. Habits are neither good nor bad. It depends on what the habit is. And what it’s used for. Habits begin in the brain and extend outward.

Habits build from small changes over a period of time. We can form habits for nearly any action or behavior. Some habits we form on purpose. We say, “I’m going to go to bed at _____.” Or, “I’m working out on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.” But sometimes, we feel like we just “wake up” to a habit.

Whether a good habit, or a bad one, the brain works the same way. Processes like feedback loops allow the brain to form patterns around our behavior. Doing so helps the brain automate our behavior. This allows the brain to use less conscious effort to perform the action in the future.

With that in mind, let’s examine addiction vs. habit.

● What is a habit?
● What is an addiction?
● How are they similar? How are they different?

What Is A Habit?

A basic definition of habit has 2 components. A habit is:

● Any behavior or action performed repeatedly
● With little to no conscious thought

There are dozens of things you do every day. And many of them require no thought on your part. Things like turning light switched on and off. Cooking and eating your favorite breakfast. Getting dressed and putting on your shoes.

Most things we do involve a series of steps. Think of a simple act, like getting out of bed. First, you open your eyes. Maybe you check a nearby device for the time. You sit up. Throw your legs over the side of the bed. You move your hips forward, shifting your weight onto your feet. That’s a series of 5 steps. None of which required you to think.

How Do Habits Form?

In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear identifies 4 stages of habit formation:

● Cue – sometimes called a “trigger,” this is what drives or provokes you to act or do something
● Craving – your motivation, your muse, your reason for doing
● Response – something you think or act out physically
● Reward – a good feeling of pleasure, happiness, or contentment

Charles Duhigg, author of The Power Of Habit, noted that the area of the brain most involved in habit formation is the basal ganglia. The basal ganglia serves as the epicenter for the cue, craving, response, reward process. Carried out over time, this process becomes automatic. The brain no longer thinks about it.

Why Are Habits Important?

Habits make life easier for us. They allow us to do things without having to think about them. Parents teach children basic life skills. Things like eating with silverware, or using the bathroom. Bathing ourselves. When we repeat these behaviors over a period of time, we don’t rehearse and analyze each step of these processes.

Can you imagine how hard life would be without habits? Think about adults having to put conscious effort into tying their shoes. We’d never get anything done! Not a very efficient way to live.

Can a “Good” Habit Become an Addiction?

Yes, even so-called “good” habits can resemble addictions. Behavioral addiction, or process addiction, involves a natural reward. This is a feeling of pleasure similar (though not exactly the same) as the euphoria experienced in substance use. Natural rewards impact the neuroplasticity of the brain. That is, the ability of the brain to change itself to better help us get what we want.

Behavioral addiction, or process addiction, can include otherwise harmless (even healthy) activities. Some research extends behavioral addiction into things like dieting, shopping, and working out. Technology brings with it its own share of challenges. Internet addiction, social media addiction, and video game addiction all represent new phenomena in the addiction treatment space.

What Is An Addiction?

Like habits, addictions are behaviors we repeat. Sometimes nailing down a single definition of addiction becomes difficult. A fundamental factor to keep in mind: addictions necessarily cause harm. They damage physical health. They interrupt a person’s daily life. Addictions have negative effects. To the point, you might say that an addiction is:

● Any behavior or action performed repeatedly
● With little to no conscious thought, AND
● That causes harm

How Do Addictions Form?

Addictions manifest in the brain. We do something, eat something, have something that makes us feel good. Various regions of the brain participate in the formation of addiction. As we expose ourselves to something, we feel pleasure or relief. In effect, this teaches the brain. The brain seeks ways to optimize. To make our lives easier.

Addiction Vs. Habit: Similarities And Differences

Neuroplasticity is the brain’s fluid ability to change itself. Neuroplasticity serves as a faculty behind both habits and addictions. The brain does not discriminate between them. The brain’s role is to acclimate to the data we present to it. And to change accordingly.

We experience a trigger. We feel a craving. Then, we nourish the craving. For satisfying the craving, we get a reward. For both habits and addictions, the process works the same way. Indeed, they have more similarities than differences.

With some conscious effort and willpower, most people could likely stop most habits. But addictions work differently. Addictions, especially substance use disorders, require more tools at one’s disposal. The chief difference between habit and addiction is the harm that addictions cause. Furthermore, a person suffering from an addiction does not stop the behavior even though it causes harm.

What To Do For Addiction (Behavioral Or Otherwise)

Habits help us orient ourselves in the world. They help us bring some sense and order to our lives. But sometimes the processes that help us can also hurt us.

If you’re feeling trapped by a habit or addiction, you’re not alone. Your life is not irreparable. Hope is possible and help is available. Call Recovery By The Sea now.

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