What Is The Difference Between Habit and Addiction?


Some people use “habit” and “addiction” interchangeably, but they’re not the same. Habits can be healthy; addictions never. What are the differences?

Even as young children, we are indoctrinated with good habits. Among the most frequently-mentioned daily tasks are brushing your teeth, eating a balanced meal, and exercising. However, these healthy habits are just one side of the coin. Other habits lead to harm and may even become life-threatening if unmanaged.

Habits And Addictions

A habit, according to Merriam-Webster, is any behavior that has become almost second-nature, in pattern or level of skill, through repetition. There are various kinds of habits: those intended to help improve an individual’s life, and those that can cause negative physical and psychological effects.

Good habits

Good habits are intended to promote a person’s overall well-being. For example, exercising can help someone reduce the risk of having cardiovascular problems. Going to sleep early can help boost one’s mood and energy. These habits, which can lead to an improved lifestyle, require discipline to form.

Bad habits

Bad habits usually develop not through discipline but through two other routes:

  • Providing relief from discomfort. Some habits are formed as a means to cope with negative feelings or sensations. For example, people with trichotillomania have the compulsion to pull or pull-out their hair because it gives them a sense of relief from anxiety.
  • Seeking pleasurable feelings. Another purpose of forming bad habits is craving the “feel-good” sensations related to the activity. An example would be having a coffee drinking habit in the morning to feel energized and in high spirits.

Then there’s a third type of behavior, which Merriam-Webster includes under the umbrella definition of “habit”: addictions.

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Experts keep revising their definition of addiction, but one way of looking at it is as a bad habit gone overboard. Habits usually are done routinely at set schedules or opportunities, but addictions dictate people’s schedule and life to find or create opportunities. Addictions disrupt their regular routines and completely change the course of their day-to-day living.

There are two main kinds of addictions:

  • Substance addictions. Also known as substance abuse or substance use disorders, this is when individuals start smoking, drinking alcohol, or using drugs or other substances until it takes control of their lives. People who have substance addictions may find it challenging to quit because the prolonged use has left them with an altered brain chemistry that makes it painful to stop, sometimes even lethal. It is best to seek professional help when dealing with substance addictions.
  • Activity addictions. These are types of addictions that do not involve the use of substances but rather doing certain activities that elicit pleasurable feelings. Watching pornography, gambling, or eating sweets can be activity addictions that can severely disrupt someone’s life.

Habit Vs. Addiction: What’s The Difference?

There are obvious differences between habit and addiction. The main one is the amount of control a person has over the activity. People with habits usually do their tasks on a set schedule with relatively moderate to good control.

Those with addictions may end up doing their activities more and more often just to experience relief, pleasure, or to end the withdrawal pain that comes from abstinence.

For example, someone with a drinking habit—a glass of wine with dinner, a beer with buddies after work—can still function for days or weeks without alcohol. Those who have an alcohol addiction may end up experiencing withdrawal symptoms if they skip even a day of drinking.

Thus, addiction is when the use of substances or performance of certain activities is not a choice but a necessity.

How Long Do Habits Take To Form?

Since habits and addictions are on a spectrum based on their severity, it would help to understand how they develop in the first place. However, researchers are in conflict about how much time it takes for an activity to become a habit. It can vary widely.

According to researchers at the University of London, habits can form in as few as 18 days or as long as 254 days. For most people, doing something consistently for 21 days is long enough to establish a good habit that may improve their lives.

Unfortunately, unwanted habits can sometimes solidify more quickly, especially if they involve the use of addictive substances.

When Do Habits Become Addictions?

Both good and bad habits can turn into addictions. Hand washing is a “good habit” that never leads to addiction, though excessive hand washing is a part of some obsessive-compulsive disorders that can cause harm.

Diagnosing An Addiction

Watch out for these signs to determine if any habit—whether you consider them good or bad—-is becoming an addiction:

  • You feel a loss of control over the activity. You try to limit or stop the activity but continue at an increasing frequency.
  • The activity causes changes in your life. You lose time for other activities and relationships. You experience job or school difficulties due to this activity.
  • The activity affects your mental or physical health. You become depressed if you can’t do it or because you realize your dependence on it. You may experience anxiety when you try to control or stop it. Persistent or increased abuse of alcohol or drugs can also damage your heart, brain or liver.

The key to stopping a habit from becoming an addiction is acknowledging these signs. If you notice any of these signs in you or a loved one, it is best to intervene as soon as possible to achieve full recovery.

Trained professionals are aware of the different signs and symptoms of addiction to make an accurate and complete diagnosis. With their help, you can:

  • Get customized care. Having an evaluation done by an addiction specialist allows you to get the treatment best suited for your needs. Medical experts will check your health history, current environmental factors, and other relevant information that can help them form the best treatment plan possible during addiction rehab.
  • Qualify for insurance-covered treatment. Substance abuse or addiction are considered mental health issues that many health insurance providers are required to cover.

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Habit Or Addiction: What Matters

Ultimately, it isn’t relevant whether you have a habit or addiction before you decide to get help. What is relevant is whether these habits or addictions are getting in the way of living your best life.

If the answer is yes, then finding professional help is essential to break free from these balls and chains whether or not they are considered habits or addictions.


Medical disclaimer:

Sunshine Behavioral Health strives to help people who are facing substance abuse, addiction, mental health disorders, or a combination of these conditions. It does this by providing compassionate care and evidence-based content that addresses health, treatment, and recovery.

Licensed medical professionals review material we publish on our site. The material is not a substitute for qualified medical diagnoses, treatment, or advice. It should not be used to replace the suggestions of your personal physician or other health care professionals.

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