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Habit Vs Addiction

Last Updated: Tue, January 23, 2024

A key difference in habits vs addictions is willpower. If someone is able to overcome their habit through willpower, then it is a controllable behavior. Willpower is not to be confused with choice. Someone suffering addiction can have willpower, but their brain has been rewired with the rewards of addiction. Giving up an addiction cannot be done with willpower alone.

To better draw the distinction between habits and addictions, it's important to look at each individually.

What is a Habit?

A habit is a pattern of behavior often performed unconsciously due to repetition.

How does a Habit Form?

Habits are formed anywhere from 18 to 254 days (according to a 2009 study) and tend to be formed in a 3-part cycle:

  • Cue

  • Behavior

  • Reward

The cue is the trigger. This could be an emotional state, such as nervousness or feeling bored. A trigger could also be an activity such as a party or going to the theater.

The behavior is the actual (and eventual) habit. Usinng the previous examples, if the cue is feeling nervous, the behavior could be "biting one's nails." Similarly, if the cue is going to a party, the behavior could be smoking while drinking.

The reward then is the positive sensation from the behavior.

Altogether this forms the habit-loop. Through repetition, the habit becomes unconscious.

When can you Form a Habit?

For many people, habits are formed when they're children. Children (typically) don't take the time to self-analyze their actions or think about outcomes to their actions. As a result, they're much more likely to perform a behavior or action repeatedly without thinking about it. This imprints on their neural pathways, resulting in unconscious habits in adulthood.

However, it's not impossible to form new habits or break old ones, but it is harder. Why? There are several reasons, but a pivotal one is due to "chunking." When the brain experiences a new activity, it creates a new memory branch. That memory branch starts weak, but strengthens over time with repeated use. If that activity leads to related but different activities, then newer branches are formed (initially weak, but strengthened with time).

With repeated actions and behaviors, the brain eventually stores actions in multiple places but also through "chunking." This process combines actions together. For instance, for most people, brushing their teeth is an action they don't need to think about. However brushing one's teeth is usually a combination of tasks, such as unscrewing a cap, squeezing paste onto the brush, and brushing.

This however is one of the reasons forming a new habit can be especially difficult. Unlike when we're younger and neural pathways are ripe to be imprinted on. As adults, learning independents tasks/functions can make it difficult as they're not automatically chunked together.

This is also why, many people pick up habits as adults that converge with new, repeated activities. For instance, a new job may provide social interactions in the form of smoke breaks, or opportunities to smoke during parties while drinking.

Of course, smoking can lead to a nicotine addiction which brings us to the next segment.

What is an Addiction?

An addiction is a chronic disease that rewires the brain's reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry, causing compulsive behavior despite negative consequences.

How does an Addiction Form?

An addiction is formed through the use of any substance or behavior (be it nicotine, alcohol, or porn) that rewires the brain's rewards system and its myriad functions. These substances include:

Any activity or substance that rewires the brain's rewards system can cause an addiction. Of course, genetics can play a role in people, making some predisposed to becoming addicted to substances. However, with regard to drugs and alcohol addiction, a person can become addicted as they become dependent on the substance.

Drugs and alcohol have a tendency to suppress crucial chemicals or increase crucial chemicals in the brain. This can numb stress and anxiety or cause euphoric highs and increased pleasure. The effects of drugs and alcohol are fairly immediate, and as a result, the brain begins to crave these substances as it completes a fast rewards loop and neglects long-term rewards. As the body becomes dependent and tolerance to the substance increases, more is required to satisfy the rewards system. This is why someone who is addicted can spend all their money on drugs as opposed to food and water.

What are the Symptoms of Addiction

The symptoms of addiction are:

  1. Cravings -- a strong desire to use the substance and withdrawal symptoms from disuse.

  2. Ongoing Negative Consequences -- inability to hold a job, maintain relationships, or afford a home.

  3. Drug Tolerance -- needing more of the substance to achieve the desired effect and in less time.

With this in mind, let's return to the original question.

How does Addiction Differ from a Habit

While both addictions and habits require continual use, habits tend to be formed unconsciously, while addictions are initially formed consciously.

Habits imprint new neural pathways while addictions are the result of altering the amount of naturally occuring chemicals in the brain.

You can build a tolerance and dependence on an addiction, but you cannot for a habit.

To break a habit, being aware of the issue and having the willpower to redirect the behavior is all it takes. To break an addiction, it frequently requires a visit to rehab followed by lifelong tools to ward off triggers and cravings.

While some habits can be bad or unhealthy, addictions can destroy result in permanent brain damage, trauma and death. To a certain extent, a habit may be supplemental to who you are (i.e. a behavior you have under pressure), but an addiction can overcome you like a parasite. When thinking (and discussing) with others about habit vs addiction, ensure you distinguish the two or there's bound to be miscommunication and improper guidance.

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