What is the difference between a bad habit and addiction?

What is the difference between a bad habit and addiction

When a habit starts harming your physical and mental wellbeing, you may have developed an addiction. Naturally, we have good and bad habits, but everything from relationships to your health suffers when a habit takes a dark turn.

The big difference between a bad habit and addiction is the amount of time and effort it would take to change your behaviour. A bad habit requires a little effort; an addiction requires intensive medical detox to manage withdrawal symptoms and an addiction treatment programme.

What is the difference between a bad habit or an addiction?

If you are starting to wonder if your drinking or drug usage is more than a bad habit, you are in the first stage of addiction recovery. This is the pre-contemplation stage.

Here are five questions to ask yourself to determine if you have a troubling habit or an addiction. You’ll only know for sure if you’re completely honest with yourself.

  1. Is my behaviour hurting my quality of life or relationships?
  2. Do I put myself in risky situations to continue the habit?
  3. Do I experience bad withdrawal symptoms when I stop drinking or using drugs for a while?
  4. Do I go to extra lengths to hide my behaviour from family, friends and colleagues?
  5. Have I repeatedly tried to quit drinking or drugs, but I haven’t been able to stop?

If you answered yes to any of these 5 questions, it’s likely you suffer from an addiction.

Bad habit versus addiction

Addiction expert Nicole Schramm-Sapyta, PhD, clarified the difference between a bad habit and an addiction in a podcast produced by the Duke University School of Medicine.

“A habit is something we do out of convenience. We do it without thinking, and it makes things easier for us, or else we enjoy it. An addiction is something that we do over and over again, despite causing harm to our lives.

And that’s easy to see with drugs and alcohol; a little bit harder to see with cigarettes although we know the health risks; even harder to see with caffeine and sugar. But the primary definition of addiction is that it’s causing harm, yet the person is still doing it, and this is linked to changes in the brain.”

How quickly does a bad habit become an addiction

How quickly does a bad habit become an addiction?

Addiction takes time to develop. Moving from pleasure and enjoyment to dependency and tolerance can take anywhere from a few months to a few years, depending on how vulnerable a person is to addiction.

In her podcast, Schramm-Sapyta notes that people with underlying mental health issues are most vulnerable to substance use disorder. She also notes that women tend to develop addiction more quickly than men because of differences in brain chemistry, although more research is needed to understand this difference better.

Schramm-Sapyta explains what happens the first time you take a drug or start drinking alcohol; you have a great time, enjoy how it makes you feel, and the experience intrigues you. But for true addiction to occur, a person’s brain will change. This leads to a compulsion to take the drug over and over again, despite harmful consequences.

What causes addiction?

The combination of repeated drug use and a genetic predisposition to the disease causes addiction. Genetics play a role in addiction together with environmental factors, including abuse and trauma in the home, early exposure to alcohol and drugs, peer influences and social stressors.

How addiction works

Repeated alcohol or drug use affects a part of the brain called the nucleus accumbens. This area is a bundle of nerve cells, also known as the brain’s pleasure cells. It’s the part of the brain that controls response to pleasure and reward.

Anticipation of satisfying experiences triggers the release of a “feel good” neurotransmitter called dopamine in the nucleus accumbens. Satisfying experiences can be seeing family and friends, eating chocolate or a delicious meal, sexual encounters, social media posts, making money, taking drugs or drinking alcohol.

Alcohol,  nicotine and addictive drugs pack an extra-powerful pleasure punch. The brain is flooded and then overwhelmed by dopamine in anticipation of these substances. With so much dopamine in your system, your brain has to regulate dopamine receptors to counteract the flood of the chemical messenger in your system.

You lose dopamine receptors and become anhedonic, which is the inability to feel pleasure. The brain then prioritises the prefrontal cortex, which is now overactive. The amygdala ramps up adverse side effects when it doesn’t get the dopamine it’s now used to, which we experience as withdrawal symptoms.

This combined brain activity makes you go from “liking’ the substance or activity to “wanting” it and then “dependent” on it. To experience the pleasure you did initially, you use more or take larger doses of the substance. You may no longer enjoy alcohol or the drug and want to stop, but you keep using it to feel normal – or rather – what becomes the ‘new normal’ for your brain to function.

How to stop a bad habit before it becomes an addiction

How to stop a bad habit before it becomes an addiction

A popular method used to quit a bad habit is based on the 21/90 rule. It’s something you can do on your own, but it’s best to get help from a trained addiction therapist.  

Start by committing to a personal or professional goal for 21 straight days. After three weeks, pursuing your recovery goal becomes a habit itself. Once you’ve established that habit, keep going for another 90 days. After that, the habit should become a permanent lifestyle change.

You’ve heard the saying, “It takes 21 days to create a habit”. Yes, it does. But it’s the extra 90 days that seals the deal. Commit to your goal for 21 days, and it will become a habit. Commit to your recovery goal for 90 days, and it will become part of your lifestyle.

Start today, and in less than four months, you’ll have kicked a bad habit for good and created a new habit, living a life free of the substance or activity that had you in a stranglehold. This exercise could save your life if your bad habit involves substances or behaviour that could destroy you or take your life.

We’re here to help.

Contact us today if you’d like a confidential and free chat with one of our highly-trained addiction professionals at Centres for Health and Healing.

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