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Habit vs. Addiction: 7 Important Differences


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We’ve all heard it… I’m addicted to SUGARMaybe it’s work, coffee, chocolate, running, men/women or a million other things. But are we? Is my morning coffee an addiction or a habit?  What’s the difference?  Is there a reason to care?  With all the concern about addiction running through social media, I decided it was time to find some answers.

What is the difference between habit and addiction?  Addiction, unlike habit, includes very intense physical and psychological cravings, serious withdrawal symptoms, the 3 C’s (compulsion, control, and consequences), behavioral changes and different methods of change or quitting. 

In many ways, a habit represents the early stages of addiction. You simply cannot have an addiction without the development, however brief, of a habit. However, the opposite is not correct. You can have a hundred habits that never develop into an addiction.

So, let’s look deeper at both habits and addiction and see if we can find a little more information on the similarities and differences.

Is Habit the Same as Addiction?

Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a habit as “a settled tendency or usual manner of behavior,” with a secondary definition of “an acquired mode of behavior that has become nearly or completely involuntary.”

The same source defines addiction as “a compulsive, chronic, physiological or psychological need for a habit-forming substance, behavior, or activity having harmful physical, psychological, or social effects and typically causing well-defined symptoms (such as anxiety, irritability, tremors, or nausea) upon withdrawal or abstinencethe state of being addicted.”

Habits can be positive, like exercising daily; negative, like drinking too much coffee, or neutral. Addictions, by definition, are negative and convey harmful consequences to the addict.

Clearly these are very different things.  While addiction includes a habit, a habit does not always lead to addiction.  Clear as mud, right?  To clarify, as much as possible, here are 7 important differences between habit and addiction.

Differences Between Habit and Addiction

The easiest way to compare two items is to identify the differences between them. That’s what we’re going to do now.  We are going to identify some of the key differences between habits and addiction to help clarify what each is and how each develops.

To make everything a tiny bit clearer, I’d like to illustrate each aspect with a personal example. I often say that I’m a sugar addict. And that’s going to be the perfect example to examine the differences between a proper addiction and a habit.

Why? Because food really CAN become an addiction, and sugar is definitely a substance that triggers us a lot. And many times I actually have wondered whether I was properly addicted to sugar or not. Maybe that’s your case, too.

Withdrawal Symptoms

When the habit or addiction is not met, there are very different consequences to the individual.

Addiction withdrawal includes a physiological (physical) craving, as well as a psychological (mental) desire.  Depending on what the addiction is to, physiological symptoms of withdrawal can include tremors, shakes, flu-like symptoms, anxiety, seizure activity, depression, vomiting, nausea, and restlessness.

Stopping a habit, on the other hand, can result in some minor discomfort, a feeling of something undone, but no major physiological or physical symptoms.  If you miss your morning run because it’s raining, you might be a little restless, but you’re probably not going to experience seizure activity.

So what’s with my sugar addiction here?

When I quit eating refined sugar abruptly, I clearly get some minor headache the next day and may feel a little groggy for one day or two. However, when I take things progressively, eating less and less sugar over a few days, I don’t even have to go through this small discomfort when I finally quit eating sugar.

But in extreme cases, when food has properly turned into an addiction (such as bulimia), withdrawal symptoms can be much stronger and difficult to overcome alone. That’s when the person needs professional support.

That’s really not the case for me. I may find it hard sometimes to quit sugar, but I always manage to get back to a super healthy diet, eventually. And I can even say that, overall, I’ve drastically reduced my sugar consumption and even craving over the years…

Habist vs Addictions- 7 Important Differences

Cravings

A “craving” is an intense, urgent desire or longing for something.  Perhaps its chocolate, approval or alcohol.  Regardless of “what” you crave, the craving itself is the same.

Both Charles Duhigg in The Power of Habit* and James Clear in Atomic Habits* explain how cravings are an inherent and crucial component of habit loops.

With addiction, the addict physically and emotionally craves the substance or behavior. However, as opposed to what would be the case in a simple habit, this craving is so intense that it can cause loss of judgment, change in priorities and tremendous loss of willpower.

The cravings lead the addict to do whatever it may take to obtain his/her desire.  Nothing else matters, emotionally, socially or psychologically, as much as fulfilling that need.

People do not crave habits with the same intensity.  Using your blinker to switch lanes may be a habit (I certainly hope so!), but you aren’t going to skip your high school reunion to make sure you get the opportunity to use those blinkers. There simply isn’t the same intense longing and desire involved.

High intense is my sugar craving?

To be fair, when I sometimes “fall back into my sugar addiction” as I like to say, my craving can become very strong. So strong, that I would walk 30-40 minutes around midnight to get to the one open store around to buy my sugar! The craving can be so intense that I decide the day is not going to end until I get this one last dose of sugar.

To me, that’s probably the closest I get to feeling like an addict. But I do know for sure that, even though my sugar craving can become really strong, it’s nothing compared to a proper addiction.

I’m still able to let it go if there’s no option or if my social life makes it difficult to just step out and go get my sugar dose.

So, on the craving aspect, I’d say that I’m about half-way between a normal habit and an addiction.

Control

While both habit and addiction initially begin with a decision or a choice, addiction diverges from the choice option.

With a habit, a choice is made to do it. The choice may become subconscious, like checking your mirrors before changing lanes or maybe more conscious, like brushing your teeth each morning.  Either way, your brain chooses to engage in a specific behavior, generally because it has become accustomed to doing so.

Addiction, on the other hand, includes no such choice or control.  Addiction is based on the pleasure obtained by indulging in the addiction. Whether it’s a dopamine rush from narcotics or an adrenaline rush from gambling, the chemical release of pleasure neurotransmitters is where the addiction truly lies.

Because withdrawal is such a negative experience, the pleasure someone finds when resuming the activity gives the addiction that much additional reinforcement.

What makes the addiction that much more difficult to break?

Addiction involves a portion of the brain known as the amygdala, which is associated with emotions and memories.  When the amygdala forms a memory, it associates an emotion with it. If that emotion is a pleasurable one, the memory too becomes pleasurable.  Do you see the loop?

As the addict is involved with the addiction, a pleasurable memory is formed. This leads to a pleasurable emotional response. Each addictive experience fuels additional memories and additional emotional responses. Now, try to break that cycle when the result is vomiting, nausea, tremors, and seizure. Not much for incentive, is it?

I am not saying that addicts have no choice whatsoever. If that were the case, addiction would never be overcome. I am saying the level of choice involved between habit and addiction is simply incomparable.

Do I have control over my sugar addiction?

Well, the fact that I’ve been able to quit refined sugar for very long periods (up to 1 year) by myself probably answers the question. I actually pushed the sugar-eating game far enough that it made me sick. But when I realized that sugar was the cause of my chronic pains and illnesses, I was able to progressively self-regulate.

I’d say that I didn’t have as much control over it as a regular habit. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have let sugar make me sick so often before I finally quit it. But I certainly was able to react by myself, and soon enough.

Compulsion

Compulsion may begin before the addiction occurs!  It is obsessive behavior, in this case, directed toward the object of addiction.

Examples of compulsive behavior include daydreaming about the habit or activity; incessantly talking about it; scheduling your day around or spending most to all your time with people who indulge in it.

As the development of an addiction is clearly affected by personal choice, the “rational” portion of this concept is self-explanatory. The term “compulsion” means an inability to refrain from a behavior. Addicts can, in fact, refrain from their addiction when the motive to do so is sufficiently large.

Hence, the hybrid concept of rational addiction.  A blending of initial (and repeated) choice, combined with an acknowledgment of the extreme difficulty involved in breaking that pleasure loop we talked about.  However, this scientific model also underscores that the model can, in fact, be broken as it isn’t rooted solely in biology.

The compulsion of an addict is the driving force behind his/her desire for their addiction. That compulsion for the pleasurable feelings, combined with the desire to avoid the negative consequences of withdrawal, make this a psychological monster to defeat.

Do I have a compulsive/obsessive behavior towards sugar?

Well, that’s a definite yes. When I fall back into my sugar addiction, I definitely CAN develop a compulsive/obsessive behavior.

The best example that comes to my mind is my one-week visit to Bucarest in early summer 2019. I had just gone through 3 months of Wildfit challenge. So, I hadn’t been eating refined sugar for probably around 6 weeks.

I was visiting a good friend of mine in Bucarest, and right upon my arrival, we went for lunch to a cute little café. They had plenty of healthy options. And I was very happy to see that I didn’t care for the sweets or unhealthy dishes at all.

But my friend told me about those amazing cafés and restaurants we should go to BECAUSE they had great desserts. And I started opening up to the idea of eating sugar again…

With each meal, and with each possibility to eat dessert, my craving became stronger and stronger.

3 days in, all I could THINK ABOUT was the next possibility to have a dessert. Seriously. I became 100% obsessed about sugar.

I did not even CARE about the amazing non-sweet and non-sugary meal options. And for sure, I could have eaten just SUGAR, SUGAR and SUGAR all day.

So, yes, in that sense I can have obsessive episodes when it comes to sugar…

Consequences

 

This is a big difference between habit and addiction.  With addiction, the consequences of your behavior are always strongly negative, yet continued.

Examples of negative consequences may include:

  • Losing friends or family members in your life,
  • Death, continuing the habit after being warned it is killing you,
  • Legal issues or trouble with the police,
  • Falling deeper into debt,
  • Loss of home or becoming homeless.

There are many other consequences I’m sure you can think of. The bottom-line point is that the consequences are strongly negative in your life, yet you continue with the addictive behavior.  Again, this is completely irrelevant of what your addiction is.

With a habit, even a bad one, the consequences tend not to be as negative as for addictions. For instance, I may be eating a cookie every day, but that alone is unlikely to socially isolate me or cause my death.

And in fact, as consequences become increasingly negative, you can stop or reduce the habit.

For example, if you bite your fingernails, as they begin to bleed or become infected, you will be able to stop the biting due to the pain and discomfort. Similarly, if your habit of eating cookies every day causes you to put on weight or start having health issues, you’re very likely to react quickly and reduce your sugar intake.

What about the consequences of my sugar “addiction”?

Well, clearly, that’s where I can say that I am not a proper addict. Every time the consequences become too strong, I am able to refrain or stop eating sugar.

I would not let my health, social relationships or expenses suffer from my sugar craving…

Behavioral Changes

This is another key factor.  Addicts change their behavior to accommodate the addiction.  Examples of behavioral change may include:

Hiding.

Habist vs Addictions- 7 Important Differences

Addicts may try to hide it from friends and family. Whether from embarrassment or fear of rejection, most addicts will hide their behavior from those that love them most.  As the addiction deepens, the attempt to hide it will become less and less effective.

Lying.

This relates to the hiding concept. Addicts may lie about where they’re going, who they will be with and what they are doing.  They could also lie about what they spend their money on, the status of their job or home and a myriad of other things to try to keep the secret from their family and friends.

Finances.

Most addictions incur some form of additional expense in the addict’s life.  Unless independently wealthy, this extra income must come from somewhere.  Addicts may steal from friends or family.  Or they may take on additional work, whether legal or not, to provide the necessary income.

Mood swings.

Depending on the substance or addictive behavior, the addict may exhibit wild mood swings. Up one moment, down the next.  Crying, sleeping continually, angry, euphoric, all may be shown within just a matter of hours, depending on where the addict is in the usage cycle.

In any of these instances, it is the desire for the addictive substance or addictive behavior that is fueling them. It is not who they are but what they need that is their driving force.

Habits do not offer these behavioral changes to the same extent, not even negative habits.

Breaking It

Habits and addictions take very different levels of commitment to break. Breaking or starting a new habit can occur in as little as 18 days for the average person. If focused on “getting it done”, it is a straightforward procedure you can do yourself.

Addiction, on the other hand, is anything but. Because the pleasure loop is so strong in the addict’s brain, simply rewiring with changed behavior is not enough.

For an addict to beat their addiction generally requires psychological intervention, medical or pharmaceutical support, or a complete inability to obtain the item, such as incarceration or hospitalization for enough time.

Even with that level of support, over 85% of addicts relapse repeatedly.  Can you imagine that?  Over three-fourths of addicts will relapse when trying to break their addiction.

Similarities Between Habit and Addiction

We’ve looked at the differences between a habit and an addiction, and they are powerful. That said, now we need to look at their similarities.

Routine

With both a habit and an addiction, they are part of our daily routine.  The substance or behavior is something we do on a regular basis, sometimes without even thinking about it.

Humans are designed to prefer routines and regularity in their lives. We become uncomfortable, even when a small routine is changed.  Don’t believe me?  Try something as simple as using your left hand (or right hand if you’re a lefty) to take a sip of coffee.  It feels totally wrong!  We don’t like it.

Because both are part of our routine, we become very uncomfortable trying to change the behavior.  We don’t like uncomfortable either. So, we continue our habit or addiction until the consequences become severe enough to overcome the discomfort of change.

Even worse, if it is a subconscious behavior, even while trying to change it, we may “accidentally” revert to the behavior without even realizing it. This is one of the things that makes breaking a habit too difficult.

Pleasure Loop

Both habits and addiction are developed within the brain. When a person indulges in behavior or a substance the very first time, a “cue” is created.  This cue or memory as previously mentioned, associates that activity with a good or bad emotional response or anticipated future payoff.

If that memory is good or the anticipated payoff is adequate, that first time is a positive experience. The brain LOVES positive experiences!  It releases neurotransmitters that make us feel good.  We LOVE to feel good.  So, we begin to look for opportunities to recreate the same feeling.

This is what I call the “pleasure loop”. Each time we receive that pleasurable response from our activities, the behavior is reinforced, causing us to want to “do it again”.

Over time, our desire to replicate those pleasurable feelings causes that activity or behavior to become a normal part of our routine, and a habit is born.  If that habit begins to take control of our lives, it may become an addiction.

There are even studies that propose addiction is simply uncontrolled or poorly regulated habit formation in the addict.

Another study found that dopamine, or the primary “feel good” neurotransmitters involved in habit formation and addiction, is triggered in cocaine users and obese patients equally.  Few would call eating to extreme an “addiction”, but this study underlines the development of the pleasure loop in both instances.

How Do I Know if it is a Habit or an Addiction?

Where is the line between habit and addiction?  This is so very vague and appears to be very individualized.  There is no clear cut “you’re an addict” or “you have a bad habit” point.

However, there are questions you can ask yourself to identify where you are in your situation.

  1. Is the substance or behavior negatively impacting my life?
  2. Do I repeatedly and purposefully put myself in a situation to obtain the substance or pursue the behavior?
  3. When I stop the substance or behavior for a little while, do I begin to feel any physical withdrawal symptoms like anxiety, restlessness or anger?
  4. Do I try to hide my behavior or substance use from my family and friends?
  5. Have I ever done something I am ashamed of to obtain my substance or indulge in that behavior?
  6. Have I tried to stop repeatedly with little or no success?

A “yes” answer to any of these questions is a waving red flag.  Even more so if the consequences of your action are highly negative, yet you still keep on pursuing it.

Get help!

One of the biggest issues with addiction is the difficulty in stopping it.  This is not a battle to fight on your own. Get every single resource possible on your side and then face that demon with all your might.

How to Break or Start a Habit

Habist vs Addictions- 7 Important Differences

Psychology Today states that breaking a habit is a matter of following the next 10 steps.

1. Clearly define the behavior you want to change or develop.

No vague statements like “I want to get in shape”. Something more like “I want to walk 3 miles per day”.

2. Identify the triggers that cause you to lapse into a habit or fail to step into a habit you want to develop.

Continuing our exercise analogy, what makes you not want to walk those 3 miles? Too tired? Just got home and Netflix is beckoning?

3. Deal with the triggers.

If Netflix is the reason why you won’t go for a walk after work, then maybe consider blocking Netflix until a certain time in the evening. There are different ways to do it. You can have a website blocker if you normally watch Netflix on your computer. Otherwise, you can have a flatmate or your partner change the password and only logging you in at a predefined time.

In any case, you must address those triggers and how to manage them for the habit to change.

4. Develop a substitute plan.

If you’re too tired when you get home from work, maybe you could walk in the morning or during your lunch break. Then, the Netflix issue would also become a non-trigger for you.

If necessary, maybe we’ll do a mile and a half each time.

5. Change the larger picture.

If a substitute plan is not appropriate, changing the larger picture will probably help you.

Maybe the substitute plan crafted above is not working for you. Because you simply find walking boring. Then, why not spice it up?

Maybe you can get a treadmill and watch Netflix while walking our 3 miles. Or you download a few audiobooks (my preferred option) and listen to them while you do your daily walk.

6. Use prompts.

These are keys to help you remember to break or begin that pattern you want to change. Put your running shoes in a bag with your lunch, for example. Not the same bag, silly, I mean a duffel bag or something appropriate. Don’t leave them separate in your car, it’s too easy to ignore them then.

7. Get supports.

No man is an island and no habits are beaten or developed solo. Get a partner. Surely you can find someone who wants to improve their help and join you in that 3-mile daily walk.  If necessary, you can start a “Biggest Loser” type contest at work and identify your potential support system that way.

8. Support and reward yourself.

As discussed, habits and addictions are both based on the pleasure loop. You must give yourself that pleasure for the loop to take effect. I don’t mean you need to have a doughnut to celebrate that 3-mile walk. Maybe a nice smoothie or lunch afterward is enough pleasure to begin establishing that loop.

9. Be persistent and patient.

Rome wasn’t built in a day and your new habit or non-habit will not occur immediately either. It takes more time to rewire the brain than it does to wire your house. If you are worth the change, you’re worth the time it takes.

10. If necessary, seek professional help.

There are groups everywhere to help with developing or breaking a habit. Psychological support is also an option. Do whatever it takes to make yourself the winner you deserve to be.

How to Break an Addiction

If there was a clear answer to this, I would be super rich!

Most experts agree that breaking an addiction is a lifelong journey.

However, there are certain steps each agrees needs to be done.

1. Awareness and acknowledgment.

You must be aware and acknowledge there is a problem in the first place. Even if you are placed in treatment against your will. Otherwise, you will never break the addiction cycle if you aren’t able to acknowledge the existence of it.

2. Consideration.

This step takes the addict from being aware that there is a problem to seeing how the problem affects not just themselves, but the people around them. It moves the addict from a position of awareness to one of action. That action may include learning more about the addiction process. Or maybe they will learn more about the impact on their loved one’s lives, and so forth.

3. Exploring Recovery.

This does not necessarily mean interviewing recovery programs. Rather, it may be researching what is involved in recovery or learning what living without the addiction is like. The addict may talk with family or friends who have fought the same battle. And in some cases, yes, they may interview recovery programs, looking for what might be a “good fit” for them.

4. Early Recovery.

This is a very difficult time in the life of the addict. Though no longer using the substance or engaging in the addictive behavior, they have not yet developed the tools or safeguards necessary to keep from relapse.  In fact, this is the time when more addicts fail than any other time in their recovery.

This is the time where they are abandoning people, activities, and behaviors that were an integral part of their daily lives and they have not yet established good replacements for those lost components. Some of the most important skills to learn during this time include new coping skills, healthy habits and repairing damaged relationships.

5. Active Recovery and Maintenance.

By this 5th step, the addict is completely clean and sober. They have replaced old behaviors and friends with new, healthier ones. Perhaps most importantly, they can see and understand that their journey is a lifelong one. They have completely transformed their mind, body, and spirit into something the addict facing step 1 would never have dreamed possible.

Final Thoughts

Wow! What a journey this research has been. Starting this, I had no idea we were going to delve so deeply into the human brain, psychology, physiology and emotional aspects of habit and addiction.

I think one of the most interesting things is that addiction is like a bad habit on steroids (yet another addiction). Basically, everything is amped up.

Bad habits can have minor withdrawal symptoms, while those of addiction may be life-threatening.

Habits may cause you minor cravings (think mocha latte every morning at Starbucks), while an addiction causes an overwhelming craving, lessened only when the addiction is met.

Habits are within your control to change or break easily. Remember, 18 days is all it takes to start changing a habit, on average. Addiction is a lifelong journey to change or gain control over.

The consequences behind your bad habit are fairly benign, otherwise, you wouldn’t continue it.  The consequences of addiction are potentially life-threatening, yet the addict continues their behavior, without acknowledging or regarding its consequences.

I truly think the most valuable lesson of this research has been the importance of identifying if your behavior is a habit or an addiction, and then seeking the help you may need.

If you have an addiction and want further information, there are so many options available.  A good place to start is SAMSHA or the National Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. They have a FREE 800 number to call to get more information on services and resources in your area. Information is available in English or Spanish.

If you have no insurance or your insurance does not cover addiction-related issues, SAMSHA has a directory of FREE state-run programs they would be glad to share with you.

Their services are 100% confidential and they won’t even ask you for your name. They will ask where you live (city, state, zip) in order to provide you with adequate resources in your area.

Understand, they do NOT provide counseling. They are an informational directory but can point you in the right direction to obtain counseling if you need it.

You have one life. Live it the best way possible.

2 thoughts on “Habit vs. Addiction: 7 Important Differences

    1. Hi Tresha,
      thanks for your message! Please contact me via email: howtomakeithappen.com@gmail.com
      Hope to hear from you soon,
      Best
      Anja

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