It can be slightly confusing when thinking of the difference between a habit and an addiction. Both have to do with our daily behaviour and the routines we create. The biggest difference between the two would have to be that an addiction is unhealthy, while habits can be good for us. So, when does a habit change into an addiction?
A habit can be defined as a set of behaviours that are done on a regular basis. So, for example, we all have morning routines that may include such things as showering, brushing your teeth and eating breakfast. The order in which you do these things and how you do them would be a habit and often we do these behaviours without much thought. Some habits are so built into our daily lives that they can happen without us using much brainpower. For example, if you drive the same way to work every day, there may be certain days when the drive goes smoothly and you get from home to work without even thinking about the actual directions.
These types of habits can be helpful in our everyday lives. Being able to do certain routines without using much brainpower can help us use our minds for more important things. In the creative world, for example, some people report getting their best ideas when doing mundane everyday things. When our brains are able to go into “autopilot”, it can be helpful for new and interesting ideas to come to light. Habits can also help with our general health. Most sleep experts will suggest making certain things a ritual at the end of the day so that your body has the cues it needs to be ready to fall asleep. With these two examples, we can see how helpful habits can be in our everyday lives.
An addiction can be defined as a behaviour in which the person is unable to stop on their own and is done on a very regular basis. With addiction, we see that the person is obsessed with the behaviour or substance and has become dependent on it. The biggest difference between a habit and an addiction is that an addiction will often change the way in which the addict’s brain will behave.
When the addict uses the substance of choice, there is a flood of dopamine (the “feel- good” hormone) in the brain which they associate with the behaviour. Once this connection is made, the addict continues to seek this rush of good feelings and the behaviour is repeated. Soon the addict will want that feeling all the time and physical dependency takes hold. The dopamine rush seen in addiction is not seen in habits, and thus the dependency is not seen. If we take the example from above- driving the same way to work each day- that behaviour can be changed quickly as there is no connection with a chemical change in the brain.
When Habits Become Addictions
The reason it can be difficult to distinguish between habits and addictions is simply that most addictions start as habits. An alcoholic might drink normally for a number of years before they begin to show signs of dependency. The alcoholic would start off like many others, experimenting with alcohol as a teenager and using it more as a social lubricant. As they reach their early 20s, they might have a larger social life, which would lead to drinking a bit more often. As they become young professionals or move into parenthood, drinking becomes less about socialization and more about relaxation. The alcoholic will have a drink at the end of the day in order to relax and as long as they can control their intake enough to be functional the next day, this type of drinking can go on for years.
The problem, however, is that the dopamine rush they once got from say, one drink, now needs more intake to initiate the desired response and their tolerance begins to rise. As the alcoholic becomes more dependent on that nightly drink, the habit quickly switches into full-blown addiction. Alcohol can quickly move from being needed at the end of the day to being needed in small doses throughout the day and the body itself begins to rely on it to work properly. Once withdrawal symptoms are present, the addiction has taken full control and getting the person to stop drinking becomes virtually impossible.
With the example of the alcoholic, we see how a habit can turn into addiction as the person begins to rely on the repeated behaviour. If the habit is repeated enough and a chemical change happens in the brain, the person is likely to succumb to addiction. All of that being said, not all habits will become addictions as the key ingredient in addictions seems to be a change in brain chemistry. That is why we are able to change the way we drive to work easily. There is nothing changing how we feel when we create the habit of going the same way to work every day.
Habits and addiction are interconnected, though at their core they are very different. A habit can be healthy allowing someone to use routine as a way to get through certain tasks without using much brainpower. If that behaviour changes our brain chemistry however, an addiction can be created, and the habit can become unhealthy for the individual. Once this has happened it can be very difficult to stop the behaviour and it may take years for the addict to get the help they need. Being aware of how habits can turn into addictions can be very helpful for individuals who might be more susceptible to addictive behaviour. As with much in life, awareness plays a key role, as without being aware of a problem, we are unable to fix it.