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The Difference Between Habit And Addiction

habit and addiction - woman lighting a cigarette

People often excuse an addiction by calling it a habit. Someone will light up a cigarette and say, “I know this is a bad habit and I should quit.” 70% of smokers want to quit. If it’s just a bad habit, why can’t they? Or someone gets drunk on weekends says, “I got into this habit in college but I’m getting too old for this.” One in six American adults binge drinks. Why can’t they quit now that they’re older? Someone else might keep taking prescription pills after the condition they were prescribed for has passed, and say, “Now that my shoulder’s healed, I guess I should stop taking them, but I just can’t break the habit.”

But is it really a habit or is it actually addiction? Maybe it started as a habit that’s now become an addiction. Calling an addiction “a habit” actually gives the addiction power over you. So, what’s the difference between a habit and an addiction? Specifically, a bad or unhealthy habit. They’re similar, but there are definite differences. Knowing those differences can help you stop rationalizing an addiction and take the needed steps to break free from it.

Habit And Addiction Define Differently

A habit and an addiction can be similar. A habit can even become an addiction. But they are different things. Let’s explore the difference between what a habit is and what an addiction is.

What Is A Habit?

A habit is an unconscious repeated behavior caused by repeating an action until brain pathways are formed that make the action automatic. Habits can be good, bad, or benign. For example, brushing your teeth is a good habit; smoking is a bad habit; and shaving the right side first is a benign habit. Good habits improve your life, bad habits diminish your life, and benign habits make no difference. Habits can be a challenge to change, but people change habits all the time pretty painlessly.

What Is An Addiction?

habit and addiction - spiderweb

An addiction is a brain condition that triggers chronic and uncontrollable dependence on a substance that the user will seek regardless of negative consequences. An addiction is more powerful than a habit. While a habit is impulsive, an addiction is compulsive. With a habit, the person has control and can stop when they want. The addict has lost control and cannot stop without professional help. With a habit, there are little to no negative consequences. But addicts lose family, job, health, freedom, reputation, and more for their addiction. This is because habits are behavioral in nature while addictions are psychological and physiological in nature due to the strong brain-body connection that takes place.

Habit And Addiction Form Differently

The way habits form and the way addictions form are similar but different. Let’s explore each:

How A Habit Forms

Habits form from repeated actions that the brain rewards, causing repetition of the action or series of actions, until the action becomes unconscious. There are three things that happen back-to-back that form the habit:

First, there is a trigger.

It could be an emotion like stress or boredom. It could be an activity like having dinner or going to a party. It could be anything that calls for a response to regulate it.

Second, there is the behavior in response to the trigger.

For example, if you’re bored you might get on the internet or watch TV or play a video game; or if you’re sad, you might get some comfort food.

Third, the brain secretes a chemical reward

habit and addiction - sign saying win prizes

The pleasure center of the brain sends a feeling of pleasure, relief, satisfaction, etc. in response to the behavior that the emotion or activity triggered.

This reward makes you want to repeat the behavior when the trigger arises next time. This causes a behavior-loop that we call a habit. With repetition and time (usually 3 to 36 weeks), the behavior-loop becomes unconscious, and you have a habit.

This process can form good habits like playing guitar when you’re bored. The brain sends a pleasurable feeling in response to the music and musical skill you’re using plus any compliments or attention you may get from people, which makes you keep practicing and becoming a better player. It’s a great habit to beat boredom. It can also form bad habits like stress eating to get that feeling of calm from food.

How An Addiction Forms

Addictions form basically the same way as habits, but the behavioral-loop becomes much, much stronger. Rather than the mild release of dopamine that a habit gets, in response to addictive substances the pleasure center of the brain releases ten times as much chemical reward so that any signals telling us to stop the behavior are drowned out. This is why the addict loses control and can’t stop. The brain has been rewired to prioritize the seeking of that chemical release.

The good news is that if you can identify the trigger that calls up the behavior that the brain is demanding, you can rewire your brain to give a reward to a substitute, positive behavior, which over time becomes a new, healthy habit. This is something that a substance abuse counselor can help you

Habit And Addiction Break Differently

How To Break a Habit

Habit and addiction - sign saying habits to be made

Breaking a habit is not always easy, but because the reward from the brain is not extreme, changing a habit is doable without professional help. The secret is to replace the bad habit with a good habit. The brain will reward the good habit in the same way it rewarded the bad habit. Just as you developed the bad habit through repetition, you do the same with the new good habit. You repeat it for 3 to 36 weeks to form a new habit. This is doable because one big difference in habit and addiction is willpower. With addiction, willpower is not enough to break it. But with a habit, willpower can break a bad habit.

How to Break An Addiction

Addiction is harder to break than a bad habit because of several factors. Addiction has rewired the brain and changed the person’s personality; the person has crossed a line that, once crossed can never be uncrossed; the person craves and obsesses on using the substance; and the person does not have the willpower to stop.

For these reasons, the focus can’t be just stopping the behavior. The person can no more stop their addiction than they can stop cancer by trying not to have it. They must have professional help. There is hard work to be done to replace the addictive behavior with healthy behavior. And a trained, professional substance abuse counselor can help them do that.

If you or someone you love is struggling with substance abuse and addiction, I urge you to read more about substance abuse counseling and then reach out to us at Christian Counseling Associates for a free consultation. You don’t have to deal with addiction alone. We are here to help.

Derrick Sledge is a Licensed Professional Counselor Supervisor and Licensed Chemical Dependency Counselor with Christian Counseling Associates in the Plano office. He holds a Master’s Degree in Counseling and also a Master’s Degree in Biblical Studies from Dallas Theological Seminary. Derrick is working on his doctorate in education ministry with emphasis in marriage and family.


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