Habit vs Addiction

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Habits and addictions are related, but they are not the same. Understanding the differences between the two is important to get a clearer grasp of our behavior, act in a more self-aware manner, and identify if we might have an addiction.

Avenues Recovery has many years' worth of experience in treating substance abuse. We’ve helped many addicts suffering from addictions that were originally only habits. Our staff have pooled together their expertise to bring you this comprehensive article with everything you need to know about habit vs addiction.  

What Are Habits? A Prerequisite to Exploring Habit vs Addiction

In his bestselling book ‘Atomic Habits’ [1], James Clear defines a habit as “a routine or practice performed regularly; an automatic response to a specific situation.” Good habits are beneficial in that they enable us to streamline our thought processes. Acting in a way that is an automatic response to a specific situation means that we don’t have to overthink things and make decisions again and again. To some degree, we can act on autopilot. Picture a morning routine for getting children ready for school. This routine proves beneficial and so it becomes a habit; we do things in a specific order because that helps to achieve the goal (of getting out the door on time) most efficiently.

There are also bad habits. Sometimes bad habits can lead to addictions; for example, eating fast food is ok in moderation, but too much fast food can lead to a fast-food addiction. Other bad habits, such as biting your nails or picking your nose, might be things that you would like to stop doing, but they’re not things that can lead to harmful addictions.

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Is a Habit an Addiction?

Both habits and addictions begin with repeated behaviors; they become what we call “second nature.” They are so much a part of our schedule that we don’t have to think about doing them and we practice them automatically.

A crucial difference between a habit and addiction is the amount of time and effort required from us in order to change the behavior. If a habit isn’t achieving the desired results and is becoming more of a hindrance than a help, we can switch gears and change course with a little effort. Although we might occasionally find ourselves slipping back into old behaviors because we have become habituated to them, habits are things we can change without too much time or hard work.

An addiction vs habit, on the other hand, requires a great deal more time, willpower, and effort to give up, as well as a broader change in one’s lifestyle. Addictive behavior is more ingrained with  pleasure-seeking patterns, such as drinking alcohol or smoking cigarettes, creating neural pathways in one’s brain. The brain associates negative feelings like stress with supposed ‘solutions’ that will relieve a person of their pain. Giving up addictions, unlike habits, also entails physical withdrawal symptoms.

Habit vs Addiction

Because addictions affect us on a psychological level, our judgment and ability to make decisions become impaired by them. The assistance of a professional can help a person to gain perspective and address any underlying psychological issues that are causing them to act in the way that they are. Using drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism to deal with a difficult situation is an example of something that would need to be worked through.

Another difference between an addiction and habit is the amount of time that it demands from us. As Wendy Wood, author of ‘Good Habits, Bad Habits’ [2] explains: “With a true habit, our commitments to its ongoing execution diminish over time. Habits settle in, and we can more or less forget about them.” An addiction, however, might start as small and harmless, but it grows and worsens over time, eventually causing a significant problem in someone’s life. A person starts to feel less like they control the behavior and more like the behavior controls them.

What Are Addictions?

Jawad Fatayer in the Journal of Applied Social Science [3], defines addiction as “a pathological love between the person and the addictive object, be it a substance (such as nicotine, food, alcohol or heroin, etc.) or an event (such as gambling, work, love, or the internet, etc.).” Drugs and alcohol become a crutch that supports a person as well as something they cannot go without.

The diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (DSM-5) sets out 11 criteria that can arise from substance misuse. The criteria fall under four main categories:

  • Impaired control
  • Physical dependence
  • Social problems, and
  • Risky use


Let’s take a look at each category. Beneath each one are some questions to consider that will help you determine whether you or a loved one might have an addiction.

Questions to Identify Habit or Addiction

1. Using more of a substance than intended or using it for longer than you’re meant to.

Do you allow yourself a little bit of alcohol, for example, but then find yourself consuming more? For example, does one glass of wine frequently turn into two and then three? Or do you allow yourself to have an alcoholic drink once every few days but then find yourself drinking more often?

2. Trying to cut down or stop using the substance but being unable to.

Have you attempted in the past to control and/or stop this behavior but found yourself unsuccessful? Were you able to achieve a short-term change but then found yourself reverting back to old behaviors? Do you find it impossible to resist?

3. Experiencing intense cravings or urges to use the substance.

Do you feel a longing and a desire toward the source of your addiction when you are away from it?

4. Needing more substance to reach the desired effect — also called tolerance.

Do you need higher and higher doses to achieve the desired effect? Will you continue using it until it makes you feel how you want it to?

5. Developing withdrawal symptoms while not using the substance.

When you stop drinking or using drugs for any length of time, do you experience withdrawal symptoms like anxiety, stress, or a feeling of emptiness?

6. Spending more time getting and using drugs and recovering from substance use.

Have you noticed your behavior taking up more and more time in your life?

7. Neglecting responsibilities at home, work, or school because of substance use.

Do you feel this issue isn’t contained but spills over and negatively impacts other areas of your life? Have you taken steps to hide your behavior? Have you found yourself lying to people so that they wouldn’t find out about it?

8. Continuing to use even when it causes relationship problems.

Have you seen this behavior putting a strain on and even damaging your relationships? Does it get in the way of you and other people?

9. Giving up important or desirable social and recreational activities due to substance use.

Has your behavior prevented you from engaging in activities that you used to engage in?

10. Using substances in risky settings that put you in danger.

Are you willing to take a risk that may endanger you so that you can act on a certain behavior?

11. Continuing to use despite the substance causing problems to your physical and mental health.

Does your behavior negatively impact your body and the way you feel physically, as well as your self-perception and emotional well-being?


When is Professional Help Needed?

As with other physical and mental conditions, addiction is not black and white - there are many different levels of severity. How severe a substance use disorder is depends on how many symptoms of the above criteria are present.

● One symptom could indicate an individual is at risk.

● Two or three criteria point to a mild substance use disorder.

● Four or five symptoms show someone has a moderate substance use disorder.

●    Six or more criteria indicate a severe substance use disorder, which means that a person has an addiction to that substance.

If you answered ‘yes’ to the questions under two or more categories, it’s likely that you have or are near to developing an addiction, and it would be advisable to seek out professional help. The good news is that addictions are not irreversible and do not have to be permanent. Internalizing the message that you CAN change your behavior is the first step toward recovery.

Avenues Recovery offers support and treatment to those suffering from addiction. We’re here to help you move forward with an addiction-free life. Contact us 24/7 to hear more about our services and what we offer. 

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