From a mental health point of view, the difference between habit vs. addiction can be as perplexing as it is overwhelming. The line that separates the two can be unclear, and habit-forming and addictive behaviors can overlap in a lot of unexpected ways. Understanding the differences between the two can help us make better decisions and avoid losing control.
What Is a Habit?
A habit can be summed up as a routine or regular behavior that gets harder to give up the longer that behavior goes on. The best examples of habits can be seen in how people start the day. Morning rituals largely consist of a variety of habits, like brushing teeth, taking a shower, making coffee, etc. Over time, the sequence of these behaviors can become consistent for people.
An article in Forbes unpacked the ways people develop positive habits or “rational addictions.” These kinds of healthy habits can only arise, though, when people are more aware of their own behaviors. The article was based in the context of a study that found “as ‘rational addicts,’ people can weigh the costs and benefits of their current behavior taking into consideration its implications for the future, and still choose to engage.” When people know more about how their positive behaviors benefit their lives – and how their negative behaviors do the opposite – they’re much more likely to engage in healthy habits.
At the same time, though, it’s hard to shake habits as we engage with them over and over. Jasmine Bittar of Addiction Center offered tips on how to break bad habits and build new, healthy ones. Centrally, she suggested people exit their comfort zones. Comfort feeds into habits, which is why it’s important for people to try on unfamiliar behaviors to develop healthier, more constructive ones. She recommended four primary goals to develop new habits:
- Take baby steps to develop new routines.
- Avoid comfortable or enabling triggers that will tempt you to indulge your habit.
- Attempt to exchange old behaviors with new, comparable habits.
- Refrain from self-destructive, self-deprecating thoughts.
In order to understand how habits work, it’s necessary to look at how they affect decision making. Author and New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg, discussed the role of habits within the workplace in an interview with Harvard Business Review. He said, “About 40% to 45% of what we do every day sort of feels like a decision, but it’s actually habit.” This sentiment helps explain the sort of unconscious thought process we go through when making choices. Duhigg went on to say that as habits become more automatic and routine, they become harder to shake later. After people identifying an unhealthy habit, it’s important they “diagnose the cue and the reward.” Then, people can successfully work toward developing new habits.
What Is an Addiction?
Addictions, on the other hand, are much more powerful than habits. In these instances, for the most part, people will make sacrifices to their lives out of an obligation to pursue a substance or practice.
Defining addiction is difficult, but the American Psychiatric Association provides a simple explanation for what brings on certain addictive behaviors. The organization wrote, “People with addiction (severe substance use disorder) have an intense focus on using a certain substance(s), such as alcohol or drugs, to the point that it takes over their life.” As a result, people who are addicted to something experience different modes of thinking and altered brain functions. People who exhibit addictive qualities are sometimes aware of their mental health problem yet continue to engage in risky, problematic behaviors.
Addictions don’t have to be centered on consuming substances, though. Instead, as explored in the International Journal of Preventative Medicine, certain behaviors can be just as addicting. The researchers stated that “behaviorally addicted individuals have certain symptoms and will undergo the same consequences brought about by addiction to alcohol and drugs as well as other obsessive behaviors.”
The National Institute on Drug Abuse looks more thoroughly into the way the brain functions in people who are addicted to something. The organization stated that “surges of dopamine in the reward circuit cause the reinforcement of pleasurable but unhealthy behaviors like taking drugs, leading people to repeat the behavior again and again.” By indulging in the substance or behavior, over time the dopamine that triggers in the brain lessens and lessens. This ultimately reduces the “high” that people get from their addiction, which motivates them to seek out the substance or behavior more and more.
The Significance Between Habit vs. Addiction
Probably the most important distinction between habit vs. addiction is how choice, to an extent, is still possible with habit-forming behaviors. When it comes to addiction, people generally have a harder time making decisions because of their dependence on a substance or behavior. Typically, these factors are linked to the rewards systems in the brain, which helps explain their overarching power in stripping people from the ability to make rational decisions.
The debate between habit vs. addiction has become more intense for mental health experts. Adi Jaffe, Ph.D., of Psychology Today analyzed the ability for people to choose their habits or addictions. Mental health professionals fiercely debate this topic, but he found that both camps are right; habit formation is more choice-based while addictive behaviors can be more neurologically and biologically bound.
“In the end, it comes down to training,” Jaffe said. “If we want to end up with a different set of behaviors, we have to understand the mechanisms and processes that got us there and make a change.” Although this certainly isn’t a definitive end to the debate, it does add a layer of understanding to the difference between addiction vs. habit.
Developmental neuroscientist Marc Lewis, writing for the New York Times, explored how addictions and habits might not be as different as they seem at first. This controversial opinion is comes from the idea that as brain functions change, so do habits. He found that “addiction is brought about by the repeated pursuit of highly attractive goals and corresponding inattention to alternative goals.” This definition frames addictive behaviors as being similar to habit-based ones.
Alternatively, the research Barry J. Everitt, writing for the European Journal of Neuroscience, compared the starker difference between habit vs. addiction. He focused primarily on the treatment side of drug addiction, but he made a point to discuss how habits can lead to acute addictions. He wrote, addiction to drugs is “the endpoint of a series of transitions from initial voluntary, or recreational, drug taking through progressive loss of control over drug use.” In this context, a habit can be seen as the precursor to addiction.
Not all habits will lead to addictive behaviors in the end, but it’s still important to recognize the dependent nature of some substances and practices. It’s not often that people begin with full-blown addictions; instead, addictions develop over the course of time. During the early stages of habit formation, people may still have the power to mold their behaviors and practices.
If you think you’re developing an addiction, or if you think you know someone who is, please contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s national helpline. It’s confidential, free and open 24-hours-a-day.
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