WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A HABIT AND AN ADDICTION?

6th September 2019 Brett James Thornton – Founder How to Treat Addiction

The two words are frequently interchanged, often incorrectly. Both are formed as a result of consistently repeating a particular behaviour. There is such a thing as a good habit, regular exercise for example. Something can start out as a habit and over time cross the line into addiction where it becomes much more difficult to change, break free and recover from the consequences. It is important to know the difference so that appropriate help can be sought if needed as soon as possible.

WHAT IS ADDICTION?

Addiction is driven by a need and dependence on a substance or a process (gambling, sex, porn) with a compulsion to use it to the point where one has lost the ability to self-regulate. Indeed, one way to determine the true nature of the behaviour pattern lies in the inability to stop or even pause at will which differentiates habit from addiction. If it has developed or progressed to this point it would prove to be an immense struggle to abstain from using the substance or process addiction and even if abstaining temporarily is possible it would cause psychological distress that becomes so overwhelming that eventually the behaviour will be carried out, even despite personal detriment.

Addiction is often referred to as a disease or at least recognised as a mental illness which is both complex, progressive and fatal. To recover from such often takes more than will power and good intentions. In fact, wherever possible when looking at how to treat addiction professional support and rehabilitation should be sought to overcome a substance abuse disorder. Unlike a bad habit, which may take some time and self-discipline but remains, with effort, possible for most people.

“Given the harm, you’re doing to yourself and others, are you willing to stop? If not, you’re addicted. And if you’re unable to denounce the behaviour or keep your pledge when you do, you’re addicted.”

-“In The Realm Of Hungry Ghosts” by Gabor Mate

WHAT DETERMINES A HABIT RATHER THAN AN ADDICTION?

Unlike an addiction, a habit is primarily driven by repetition and routine rather than total powerlessness and lack of control. Not engaging in the routine would not necessarily cause one distress. Studies have shown that on average habits take approximately 66 days to form and take a minimum of 21 days to break.

Habits are formed due to the triggering of the reward centre of the brain. When a behaviour releases ‘feel-good’ chemicals such as dopamine, endorphins, oxytocin and serotonin the brain associates this behaviour as being ‘good’ and compels one to continue to do it.

Here is an example of how the reward system in the brain works; if one is in the habit of eating ice cream and watching television late at night after work hours, the trigger may be residual stress from work, the end of the working day or simply arriving home and seeing the television and the couch. The trigger sets into motion the routine of going to the fridge or the shop and grabbing the ice cream to eat in front of the TV. The result of consuming the ice cream while watching TV may be a temporary stress relief and an increase in the ‘feel-good’ chemicals in the brain which are the reward. When this behaviour is repeated enough one will do it ‘as if on autopilot’.

SO WHEN DO HABITS CROSS THE LINE INTO ADDICTION?

When a substance or process addiction becomes repeatedly used as a coping mechanism, the brain feels good, ‘rewarded’ when it receives it, thus propelling one to continue to use it. This creates a physiological connection where the brain is rewired. Drinking a couple of beers or a glass of wine after work may begin as a harmless habit but when one begins to experience cravings for alcohol and a compelling need or urge to drink after, before or during work hours, what once started out as a harmless behaviour has become an addiction by which time will need to be treated. Now, crossing this threshold means one glass becomes three which soon becomes a bottle and thus the disease starts to progress. It will quickly become a very serious issue that needs to be addressed with professional help as soon as possible.

SO HOW DO YOU TO TREAT A HABIT OR ADDICTION?

According to some experts, it is in breaking the pattern of behaviour that one finds the answer to breaking a habit. Before working to change the pattern, one needs to decide specifically what part of the behaviour one wants to change. Having identified a particular goal, for example; going for a thirty-minute run three times a week before watching TV after work, then it is time to identify the triggers. Identifying the triggers will help one to gain some power back and allow a bit of resistance to the pattern. So, let’s say the trigger is seeing the television and couch as soon as one enters the door from work.

Now wherever possible it is best to eliminate the triggers, substitute them for something more conducive to the goal or put in steps that will help prompt discontinuation of the autopilot.

For example, it may be hard to remove the television and couch from the living room, instead one can make it as easy as possible to carry out the run by putting running shoes just inside the door so that they are seen straight away upon entering the room. Make the resolve to do the thirty-minute run and to watch TV after completing it.

There is a lot of research available online with different tools that can be utilised to aid one in substituting or eliminating unwanted behaviours. CBT and regular mindfulness practice are also extremely beneficial tools that can help develop greater awareness around behavioural triggers and patterns.     

In regards to treating any addiction, there really is no substitute for professional help and support at an inpatient rehabilitation centre, outpatient counselling or online resources that specialise in how to treat addiction. Here, one will receive the support required not only to safely detox but also to develop a greater understanding of how to achieve long-term sobriety. Other highly recommended support that can be sought includes 12 step fellowships such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous and ongoing addiction therapy and counselling.

If you fear you or a loved one could be struggling with an addiction it is never to early to get help. Please contact me directly at info@howtotreataddiction.com or contact us for online addiction counselling services.

Always remember

“Every recovery from addiction began with one sober hour” – Unknown

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