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Habit or Addiction: What’s the Difference?

by Scot Chadwick

Anything can become addictive if it offers predictable pleasure. But the root of the problem is not the addictive substance or experience, and the critical change is not behavior modification. The heart of the matter is the heart of the individual—the combination of thoughts and desires that influence behavior.

As humans, we are designed to be dependent on other people and things external to ourselves. For example, we need to eat to survive. But when an uncontrolled desire for fulfillment through food becomes a dominant element in the person’s life, a gluttonous person has potentially turned the basic need of nourishment into an addiction.

So, what can we do about addictions? Let’s start with a better understanding of what an addiction is and how it differs from a bad habit.

What Is an Addiction?

Like habits, addictions are behaviors that individuals consistently engage in to fulfill some desire. We want to feel good, so we engage in some experience that has previously delivered the reward we seek. But when the demand for the prize or the means we are using to get it are unhealthy, we have created a bad habit if not an outright addiction.

Bad habits and addictions are similar in many ways. For example, these characteristics are often true of both behaviors:

  • We commonly introduce them to manage adverse circumstances, such as trauma or physical pain.
  • They are both confirmed by repeated and persistent action.
  • They hurt ourselves and others.
  • We tend to justify them for a variety of reasons.
  • They can be challenging to modify or stop, even after many unsuccessful attempts.

There are different types of addictions, and sometimes the addictive substance or experience is not harmful in and of itself. While there are addictive substances like drugs and alcohol, we can also become trapped in addictive experiences. People can become addicted to work, shopping, video games, gambling, pornography, cell phones, or exercise.

Addictions tend to get worse over time due to tolerance—an increasing appetite required to get the same effect.

The root difference between a bad habit and an addiction is the perception of enslavement or loss of control. Addicts feel a compulsion or obligation to indulge themselves, often thinking or saying, “I need” or “I have to” because of their dependence. They feel the absence of the substance, experience, or reward, and they crave the satisfaction that comes from their particular pleasure. They give excessive time and attention to their addiction because of the euphoria, which follows their indulgence.

An addict has become trapped in a downward spiral of behavior and become preoccupied with the substance or practice and the reward they provide. Addictions tend to get worse over time due to tolerance—an increasing appetite required to get the same effect. They might feel guilty because of their unhealthy and damaging behavior, or they might deny the problem and lie to conceal it.

Addicts often feel like they cannot limit themselves, and they break their own rules as they rush further into their destructive behavior.

Causes of Addiction

Many times, an addiction develops when we look for an external solution to an internal problem.

For example, damaging patterns can arise

  • In reaction to difficult life circumstances like the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, chaos at home, or abuse;
  • Due to feelings of inadequacy, impatience, boredom, or loneliness;
  • Through easy access to harmful substances and negative or even traumatic experiences;
  • From unhealthy passions like lust and malice;
  • To escape from reality or soothe a guilty conscience;
  • When trying to manage physical pain;
  • Due to physiological issues like lack of sleep, poor nutrition, or lack of physical activity; or
  • When trying to relieve stress and anxiety, like needing alcohol to settle nerves at the end of the day.

Many times, an addiction develops when we look for an external solution to an internal problem.

Addiction Symptoms

How can you know if you are addicted to something? There are many symptoms of addictions that could appear. Some signs might be more pronounced than others, and some might be absent. But generally, these characteristics would be true of individuals caught in addictions:

  • Craving, intensely longing for the reward
  • Obsession, all-consuming focus
  • Excessive time and money spent on the substance or experience
  • Anxiety, stress
  • Depression
  • Exhaustion
  • Insomnia
  • Negative impact on self and acquaintances
  • Unmet expectations and commitments
  • Entitlement mentality
  • Selfishness
  • Sensuality, living for pleasure
  • Shame, guilt, remorse
  • Disinterest in formerly enjoyable things
  • Dismissal of others’ concerns
  • Deception
  • Erratic behavior, irritability
  • Irrationality, foggy thinking
  • Isolation and lack of concern about others
  • Hopelessness, seeing the behavior as the only option
  • Increased exposure to risky behavior and disregarding consequences
  • Increasing frequency or amount of the substance or experience
  • Loss of control, inability to stop or limit the behavior

If you or someone you know is experiencing many of these symptoms, you may be dealing with an addiction. If so, seek help and accountability right away.

The Proper Goal of Addiction Recovery

Addiction recovery should focus on helping individuals find fulfillment in healthy ways, apart from the enslaving behaviors they think they need.

As we stated earlier, anything can become addictive if it offers predictable pleasure. Certainly, our goal cannot be to lead a pleasureless life. What an unhealthy way to live! But there is a big difference between needing something to live and demanding it to be happy.

We will consider a process of addiction recovery in a subsequent article. For now, realize that many of the strategies that eliminate bad habits can also help individuals begin to overcome their addictions.

Originally published on September 30, 2019

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