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Habits vs Addictions

When does a habit become an addiction?

There are distinct differences between habits and addictions.

Habits are not addictions and not all addictions are habits, although they embody some of the same characteristics. For example, you are not addicted to brushing your teeth, but it is something that you do habitually every day.

Habits and addictions are both patterns of behaviour that are repeated regularly, but they differ in terms of their level of control and their impact on a person's life.

  • A habit is a behaviour that has been repeated so often in the same context, that it becomes automatic, requiring little or no conscious thought or effort.

  • An addiction, on the other hand, is a compulsive behaviour that a person feels unable to control, even if it has negative consequences on their life.

The difference mostly comes down to the reward value; dopamine.

In the context of habits, dopamine is released in the brain when we engage in a behaviour that we find rewarding or pleasurable. This reinforces the behaviour and makes it more likely that we will repeat it in the future. Over time, the brain begins to associate the behaviour with the release of dopamine, which feels good, leading to the behaviour becoming a habit.

In the context of addictions, dopamine plays a similar role, but with some important differences. When a person engages in a behaviour that they are addicted to, such as using drugs or gambling, dopamine is released in the brain at much higher levels than with a habit. This leads to a more intense feeling of pleasure or reward, which strongly reinforces the addictive behaviour making it both, something we really crave, and something that’s difficult to quit.

How do I know if what I'm doing is a habit or an addiction?

Here are some factors to consider when evaluating whether a habit has become an addiction:

1. Compulsion and Loss of Control: One of the defining features of addiction is the compulsion to engage in a behaviour or use a substance despite negative consequences. If you find that you cannot control your behaviour, even when you want to, and it is causing harm to yourself or others, this could be a sign of addiction.

2. Craving: Strong and persistent cravings for a behaviour or substance are often associated with addiction. These cravings can be psychological or physical and may drive you to engage in the behaviour even when you don't want to.

3. Tolerance: Tolerance occurs when you need increasing amounts of a substance or engagement in a behaviour to achieve the desired effect. It's a common feature of addiction and may lead individuals to escalate their behaviour over time.

4. Withdrawal Symptoms: Withdrawal symptoms are physical or psychological symptoms that occur when you try to stop or reduce a behavior or substance use. These symptoms are not typically associated with habits but are common in addiction. They can be uncomfortable or even painful.

5. Neglect of Responsibilities: Addiction often leads to neglect of important responsibilities such as work, school, family, or social obligations. When the pursuit of a behaviour or substance takes precedence over these responsibilities, it may indicate an addiction.

6. Loss of Interest in Other Activities: When a behaviour or substance use becomes the primary focus of your life, to the detriment of other interests and activities, it could be a sign of addiction. You may lose interest in hobbies, social activities, or relationships.

7. Failed Attempts to Quit: Repeated unsuccessful attempts to quit or cut back on the behaviour despite a sincere desire to do so are indicative of addiction. This can be extremely frustrating.

8. Negative Consequences: Addiction often leads to negative consequences in various areas of life, including physical health, mental health, relationships, and finances.

9. Preoccupation: Constantly thinking about the behaviour or substance, planning when and how to engage in it, and feeling preoccupied with it are common in addiction.

10. Isolation: Individuals with addiction may isolate themselves from friends and family to hide their behaviour or to avoid judgment and criticism.

Addiction is a complex and multifaceted condition, and it can vary greatly from person to person. Not all habits will progress to addiction, and some people may be more vulnerable to addiction due to genetic, environmental, or psychological factors.

If you suspect that you or someone you know may be struggling with addiction, it is crucial to seek professional help from healthcare providers, psychologists, or addiction specialists. Early intervention and treatment can make a significant difference in managing addiction and promoting recovery.

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