The words “habit” and “addiction” are frequently interchanged, but there is one significant difference between the two. Habits can be negative or positive, while addictions are only negative. The trick to identifying, which is which often lies in the amount of time and effort it takes to break one.
What is a Habit?
Habits begin with a “loop” based on a reward system. A cue or trigger tells the brain to go on autopilot while performing a routine. If the brain benefits from the routine, it will continue to do the action.
For example, in the morning when your alarm goes off (cue/trigger) you may drink coffee (routine) because it wakes you up and gives you a boost (reward). Likewise, after a stressful day (cue/trigger) you may smoke a cigarette (routine) because it helps you relax (reward).
How Long Do Habits Take to Form?
Developing habits can range from 18 days to almost a full year at 254 days. The average time for most people, however, is just 66 days. Some studies said that it takes 21 days to break a habit, but depending on the reasons it became a habit, and the neuropeptide connections in the brain, the “habit” it can take far longer to break. Habits that become a substitute for something else, such as when food becomes a comfort mechanism rather than nutrients, it can be difficult to break without resolving the underlying reason it began.
How Do Bad Habits Get Encoded Into the Brain?
Some habits, of course, are good, such as eating healthy foods and exercising. Usually, one can modify good habits with minimal effort. On the other hand, bad habits become encoded into the brain because they serve a biological or emotional function. Addicts want that “feel good” feeling more and become emotionally bankrupt when they can’t get it. With some substances, there is a genuine physical response to a lack of the substance, so much so that they become terrified of doing without.
When Do Habits Become Addictions?
When the brain believes a harmful substance is beneficial, habits become addictions. This is due to a physiological connection. The brain rewires the “bad” habit as useful and vital to the user in certain circumstances. Drinking a glass of wine or alcohol after a rough day at work, when done only occasionally and in moderation, may be a harmless habit. When it becomes a daily necessity and when one glass becomes multiple glasses, or if there is additional stress or anxiety when unable to obtain a drink of alcohol, then the habit has become an addiction.
Addictions also reveal themselves in the “addict” or abuser’s relationships; there may be conflict and negative impacts on family, spiritual relationships, and friendships. There may be job difficulties along with financial or legal problems.
How Addictive are These Popular Drugs?
With any addictive substance, there is no cookie cutter response for everyone. Some people may have a higher tolerance than others for any particular substance. Others may be able to quit easier because they have a lower level of dependence. While the chart above shows some of the more well-known addictive substances, unfortunately, there are new drugs appearing on the streets every day for which there is little known about their impact on users.
This is Your Brain on Drugs
No matter what the substance, repeated use of anything that mimics and over-stimulates the natural “feel good” dopamine that our brains produce causes problems. The dopamine receptors reduce over time, leaving the brain less efficient, which makes it difficult for the addict to feel good without the addictive substance. This effect leads to withdrawing symptoms and makes it difficult to quit.
Recognizing the dangers of addictive substances is a step toward preventing drug use. For those already using, either recreationally or with well-developed habits, helping them identify the underlying causes for turning to the substance and offering them help and support with rehabilitation will provide them the chance to rewire their brains and develop healthy habits.
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Chris Clancy is the in-house Content Manager for JourneyPure’s Digital Marketing team, where he gets to explore a wide variety of substance abuse- and mental health-related topics. He has more than 20 years’ experience as a journalist and researcher, with strong working knowledge of hospital systems, health insurance, content strategy, and public relations. He lives in Nashville with his wife and two kids.