Habit vs. Addiction: What’s the Real Difference?

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The concept of habit vs. addiction isn’t as black and white as you might think. If you have been struggling with alcohol use you may be wondering if your drinking is just a habit or if it has become an addiction. Or maybe you know the answer but are questioning when you crossed the line.

Let’s take a look at the difference between habits and addictions, and what you can do to address your relationship with alcohol. We will also explore the important role your brain plays in the transition from habits to addictions.

What Defines a Habit?

man drinking a glass of wine outdoors in the evening
Photo by Big Dodzy on Unsplash

A habit is the result of performing any action repeatedly in response to a cue. After a while the response gets encoded in your brain and becomes automatic. For example, think about how you change foot pedals when you come to a red light. Certain habits are good!

Others—such as excessive drinking, overeating, or playing video games till 3 a.m.—can be problematic. They can affect your physical and mental health. Longer-term habits become ingrained in the brain, and are therefore harder to break.

So, let’s say you like to open a bottle of wine after work every day. Does that mean you are addicted?

The intensity of the craving is your cue. Can you skip your usual drink and be perfectly fine? Or do you become so anxious when you run out of wine that you have to immediately go out and buy another case? If your response was the latter, you may have an addiction.

When Does a Habit Become an Addiction?

A habit is both part of an addiction as well as a stepping stone towards addiction. You might say they are on a continuum. It can be difficult to pinpoint an exact moment when the transition happens, but in general it is when a behavior becomes not only automatic, but ultimately hard to control.

In a panel discussion on this topic, Dr. Paul Linde states, ”Habit seems less of a problem than addiction, but I think they are really intertwined … I kind of think it has more of a slow progression, and the habit part of it is a big part of the perpetuation of alcohol abuse.”

In the addiction stage, you are compelled to partake in a destructive behavior, even at the expense of your health, relationships, job, and general ability to function.

In regard to alcohol use, an addiction occurs when the decision to have a drink goes from a voluntary choice to an automatic response with no regard for the consequences. The rational part of your brain is no longer in charge, and there is a growing realization that you can’t stop.

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The Role of the Brain in Addiction

Part of the difference between habit and addiction lies within changes in brain chemistry that occur when you repeat certain behaviors. As a substance, alcohol has a particularly strong effect on the brain when you use it frequently.

The brain releases dopamine in response to pleasurable activities. This includes, for example, the feeling of calm you experience when you drink. Since it is human nature to seek out those rewards, pleasure-seeking activities can become habitual.

With continued drinking, your brain begins to release less dopamine in response, which is part of developing a tolerance to alcohol. You then need to drink more to achieve the desired response. Neuroscience reveals that the prefrontal cortex, which regulates judgment and self-control, also becomes damaged with extended use or large quantities of alcohol.

The good news is that the brain can bounce back—often within weeks. But external controls will be needed during that healing stage while the “impulse control center” in the brain is undergoing repair.

Understanding the Brain May Promote Healing

Simply understanding the irrationality of addiction, and how changes in the brain lead to addictive behaviors, can be a breakthrough. Brain-based explanations may de-stigmatize addiction and reduce shame and self-blame, opening the door to recovery.

Knowing the Signs of Addiction

As we know, alcohol can be difficult to avoid in our society. It is abundant at bars, restaurants, sporting events and parties. Some people can have a social drink occasionally, but for others consuming alcohol can become a destructive habit, or even an addiction.

Here are some red flags that indicate addiction vs. habit:

  • Loss of control over how much you drink and how you behave
  • Drinking becomes the ONLY way you can relax or socially engage
  • Feeling an intense craving that goes way beyond “wanting”
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms
  • Difficulty handling responsibilities at work and at home
  • Breakdown or loss of relationships
  • Legal consequences such as DUI
  • Drinking early in the morning or when you are alone
  • Forgetting what you did after a drinking episode
  • Hiding or denying your drinking
  • Becoming angry when confronted about drinking
  • Requiring increased amounts of alcohol to get the desired response

Read More: Signs You Should Cut Back on Drinking

How Changing Habits Can Help with Recovery

notebook and coffee setting new habits
Photo by Content Pixie on Unsplash

It is optimal to develop new habits before you reach the addiction stage, when the rational part of your brain hasn’t yet been impaired. But although it may feel more difficult to create new habits after addiction, it is never too late.

At Ria Health, our coaches often work with members in recovery from alcohol to help them unlearn old habits and develop newer ones. The key is to identify habits that will benefit your physical and mental health, while eliminating those which have been destructive.

Here are some examples:

  • Regular exercise. Build in time each day for some enjoyable movement. Just taking a daily walk at lunch has wonderful benefits for your mind and body.
  • Healthy nutrition. Stock up on fruits, veggies, and healthy proteins for the week ahead. Limit processed foods and sugar.
  • Connect with others. Seek out sober relationships and activities based on your interests. Book clubs, movie groups … there are many options.
  • Discover hobbies. Whether it is playing an instrument or painting landscapes, hobbies are relaxing and can reduce stress.
  • Follow routines. Daily routines are very individual, but structure can be calming. Try to wake, exercise, have meals, and go to bed at the same time each day.
  • Remove temptations. Remove all alcohol and related items from your home. Avoid social activities that involve drinking.
  • Be open about your goals. Let friends and relatives know that you are no longer drinking and ask for their support.
  • Cut unhealthy ties. Distance yourself from those who don’t support your efforts or respect your limits.

The Takeaway: How Is Addiction Different From Habit?

Habit vs. addiction isn’t always a clear-cut relationship. It will take some self-awareness to tune into your level of control and how you are coping. If you suspect that you have an unhealthy relationship with alcohol, don’t hesitate to reach out for help.

For support developing new habits during recovery, Ria Health is here to help. We provide portable alcohol treatment through a smartphone app, including weekly meetings with highly qualified recovery coaches. Members receive personalized support, resources, and techniques for establishing lasting change, as part of a well-rounded online treatment program.

Learn more about how our coaching program works.

Written By:
Lisa Keeley
Lisa Keeley is a freelance writer who resides in upstate New York. She especially enjoys writing about health, wellness and living your best life.
Reviewed By:
Evan O'Donnell
NYC-based content strategist with over 3 years editing and writing in the recovery space. Strong believer in accessible, empathic, and fact-based communication.
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