While most of us often use the words addiction and habit interchangeably, the fact is that the two are entirely different. Addiction is a compulsive dependence on anything, whether it is a substance or action that hinders your life in a major way. Habits, on the other hand, can be both negative as well as positive and aren’t usually accompanied by a physical dependence.
So just what’s the difference between an addiction and a habit?
First of all, you should know that habits and addictions are both born out of actions that you perform regularly. A negative habit can lead to addiction but what separates the two is that the addictions are mostly related to some deep lying emotional problem and recovery from it is a much more painful experience.
Addiction to a substance or activity occurs when your mind and body associates a great sense of temporary pleasure from it. These feelings are just manifestations of your mind to overcome some sort of emotional or psychological problems while covering up the harmful consequences of the addiction. Think of it this way. When you’re taking drugs or alcohol, it becomes an addiction the second you start doing it to cover up some difficult emotions.
The release of dopamine in the brain’s reward pathway is what triggers the formation of both habits and addictions. Dopamine gives the feeling of pleasure, thus when it is associated with an action or substance, you just have to do it again. The brain just associates the action with pleasure, and it becomes a default action for feeling better.
A good way of telling the difference between a habit and addiction is that if you think your mental condition is dependent on doing something, chances are you are addicted to it. Negative emotional symptoms are also quite common in addictions. For instance, if you’re addicted to drugs, you may feel anxious and grumpy if you can’t have any.
Everyone has habits. They are mostly just learned responses that build up with time due to overuse. In other words, they are kind of like reflex actions. Neuroscientists believe that they are formed in an area of the brain called the basal ganglia containing the dorsal striatum. The thing with habits is that they are hard to change. But they are not addictions. Bad habits may share similar traits with addictions, but they are different.
As far as brain activity goes, the difference between the two is subtle, to say the least. Addictions are similar to habits in the sense that they are learned responses. But they involve an extreme amount of dependence on an action or substance for e.g. drugs. They also lead to craving and lack of impulse control. Addiction also involves the basal ganglia but affects the prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain associated with self-control. It also affects the mesolimbic dopamine circuitry, which increases motivation levels for the drug one is addicted to.
It is the intensity of craving for something that differentiates a habit from addiction. As far as addiction goes, craving for the substance goes way beyond just wanting. It leads to powerful emotions, even physical feelings that focus on getting the substance. The mind and body are so used to the substance that its absence leads to imbalances in the brain function which end up creating withdrawal symptoms. These withdrawal symptoms don’t happen for habits. At worse, if you miss out on a habit, you may get the feeling of missing something, but there would be no withdrawal symptoms at all. In addictions, intense cravings are a must.
At the end of the day, it comes down to this. A habit is not hard to beat. But if you’re addicted to something, it becomes very hard to identify and accept the fact. You may need professional help. If you feel that you are too dependent on a substance and that its overuse is harming your life, if trying to quit it causes physical and mental withdrawal symptoms, you probably have an addiction.