Addictions vs Habits and Why They Form

10/19/19: Addiction
Addiction cannot be blamed on things like choice and moral failings. Yes, it begins because of a choice someone makes, but following that, addiction is a mental and physical illness that can be extremely difficult to overcome. We’ve discussed How Addiction Works in the Brain, but in this article, we will be exploring the many reasons a person turns to drugs or addictive habits in the first place. The causes aren’t really cut and dry, as each person’s experiences and circumstances are different, but there are patterns that can be seen. In addition, the way that addiction forms around substances is a bit different in some aspects than how it forms around things like gambling and pornography. In this article, we will discuss the main factors that can lead a person to become addicted to a substance or activity, and how to avoid turning a habit into something more sinister.

How Addiction Works in the Brain

For a full explanation about how addiction works in the brain, check out our article on the topic. But the gist is: Drugs disrupt the process described above by changing the way neurons send, receive, and process signals via neurotransmitters. Addictive drugs are so pleasurable to us because they flood the brain’s reward system with dopamine in a short amount of time, something that we cannot get via the natural process of the neurons. Meanwhile, the hippocampus stores this information as pleasurable memories and the amygdala creates a conditioned response to certain stimuli. Recent research suggests that dopamine not only contributes to the pleasure one feels when under the influence of a substance, but it also affects learning and memory, which play key roles in the transition from simply enjoying something to actually being addicted to it. The most widely accepted current theory about how addiction works, states that dopamine interacts with another neurotransmitter, glutamate, to take over the brain’s reward-related learning system. Addictive substances stimulate that circuit and overload it, which repeats every time the person uses. This causes nerve cells in the nucleus accumbens and the prefrontal cortex (the area of the brain responsible for planning and executing actions) to transform liking something into wanting it. This, of course, is what leads to the intense desire to chase after and continue using whatever originally caused this connection to be made in our brains, manifesting as what we know as addiction.

Habit vs Addiction

It can be difficult to discern the difference between a borderline-unhealthy habit and a full-blown addiction. This is especially true with addictions to activities such as gambling, watching porn, food, etc. But even the use of substances like alcohol, which have been established as socially acceptable can also create some confusion in terms of whether an individual has a real problem or not. Altering a habit requires only minimal effort and small changes to day-to-day life. While breaking habits can be hard, it isn’t really ever painful for the person to “recover”, so to speak. However, addiction is more than just an intense interest. An addiction involves a chemical shift in the brain that can be extremely difficult to undo, especially with the added complexity of withdrawal symptoms. Here are some of the basic signs that a habit is becoming an addiction:
  • Time spent performing the habit increasing
  • Chemical shifts in the brain
  • The presence of withdrawal symptoms

Questions to ask to determine if it’s a Habit vs Addiction

According to JourneyPure, these are the questions you should ask to determine whether it is a habit or addiction:
  • Is your behavior having a negative impact—directly or indirectly—on your life?
  • Do you repeatedly put yourself in risky situations?
  • When you stop drinking or using for any length of time, do you experience withdrawal symptoms like anxiety or stress?
  • Have you taken steps to hide your behavior or have you repeatedly, but unsuccessfully, tried to stop drinking or using on your own?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, it’s entirely possible that you or a loved one is suffering from addiction. A habit is an association between a stimulus (or incentive) and a response (or behavioral reaction) manifested consciously or subconsciously to achieve a goal. Habits aren’t normally formed as a response to something, but rather done because the activity is pleasing to the person and they want to repeat it. On the flip side, addiction, as we know, manifests via a chemical reaction within the brain, connecting the relief of negative emotions like stress and depression with craving and impulsive desire.

Addiction as a coping mechanism for pain

Substances or addictive activities provide an outlet for a person who is suffering from any number of emotional traumas. Unlike habits, addictions are often the result of underlying mental illness or prior trauma in a person’s life. People use these addictions to distract and numb them to the pain they are experiencing. It doesn’t have to just be mental pain either, as many opioid addictions result from using prescription painkillers to relieve pain after surgery or a major medical issue. According to American Addiction Centers, addiction and mental health conditions often co-occur, and between a third to half of the individuals suffering from mental health disorders are also battling with addiction (and vice versa). And the withdrawal symptoms that an individual can experience can exacerbate the symptoms of mental illness, such as depression, anxiety, anger, sleep difficulties, etc. Stress and past traumas are also closely linked with drug abuse. When we experience stress, signals in our brain urge us to escape these feelings as quickly as possible. This is why substances and vices like gambling and food become so appealing, because they offer promises of allowing the person to temporarily escape these feelings of depression and stress. The first stages of addiction usually play out this way, as the person continues to carry out the harmful actions because they provide a coping mechanism. However, once the chemical shift in the brain occurs, it becomes less of a coping mechanism and more of a need.

In conclusion…

It’s important to check in with yourself and loved ones frequently, especially if they are going through a difficult time or are struggling with mental health issues. Sometimes we think the things that are perfectly normal — things like having drinks before bed or hitting the casino for a night of fun — can quickly spiral into a habit you can’t control, which may eventually manifest as an addiction. We as human beings are always trying to escape pain and suffering, and therefore bad habits and addictions are to be expected. However, this does not in any way mean that they are healthy or should be condoned. There are plenty of beneficial, non-harmful ways to manage mental illness and stress. Simple things like taking walks, doing yoga, practicing mindfulness, eating a healthy diet, etc, to more involved actions like seeking therapy or support groups will allow you to truly heal from whatever it is you’re going through, instead of just pushing it down below the surface where it will continue to bubble up.

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If you or someone you know needs help with addiction, contact 602-737-1619 or email info@arizonaaddiction.com to get the help you need. Our acclaimed recovery environment merges upscale, luxury accommodations with affordability, clinical expertise and an unwavering commitment to patient care and aftercare.

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