What is a Habit (And Why Does it Matter)?
The question of why people get addicted in general has been explored quite often – but the mechanism behind addiction is also important. The risk factors aside, there is a distinct reason why addiction develops the way it does, and it’s important for us to explore how the brain gets hooked on drugs – or, more clearly, the behavior surrounding drug use and the descent into withdrawal and dependence.
The reasoning here is very simple. By understanding the mechanism of addiction, individuals who struggle with it have a better chance of gaining the upper hand needed to overcome their addiction and maintain healthy, long-term sobriety. This is because when addiction occurs, it becomes an extension of that person – it becomes a part of them. Understanding how addiction develops helps patients understand themselves and helps gives them a sense of direction when seeking help and pursuing treatment for their problems.
It’s like identifying an eating disorder through all the signs that point towards it as part of morbid obesity and then further identifying the root of the eating disorder as childhood trauma. Treating that is the key to eventually resolving and unraveling the rest of a person’s struggles, and reaching the point where they know what’s wrong, can identify what troubles them the most, and can take the steps in life to cope with excess stresses and the extraordinary challenges that they face in day-to-day living.
Addiction is Habit, Not Choice
The best analogy to understanding addiction is that of a rat in a lab test. If you feed a rat a sugar pellet in response to a specific action, it will likely continue to do that to receive its reward and subsequently associate the work with sugar.
Yet if you turn it around and make the association negative too early, the rat will stop pulling the lever, even if the decision to stop isn’t immediate. This is true for most animals, including humans: while our brain is wired to like sugar because it’s indicative of a high-calorie food source (and thus high energy), we’re not wired to jump off a cliff to chase after an apple.
Imagine if the rat were to continue to pull the lever to get its fix despite the negative consequences of continuously ingesting sugar – symptoms of withdrawal or rejection among peers. This isn’t a sign of addiction. It’s a habit.
Habits develop differently from goal-oriented thinking. Goal-oriented thinking is pulling the lever with the expectation of sugar – you’re doing it for the sugar because you need it. A habit is pulling the lever because that’s what you’ve been doing for weeks and months now, and it’s just become what you do, even though the effects are adverse rather than encouraging.
Reversing Bad Habits
Let’s put the rat aside because its relevance ends here, and let’s move on to human habits. We do things that aren’t in our best interest because there was a time when they were associated with our best interests, and they’ve developed into things we do now. Imagine waking up every day at the same time to follow the same strenuous morning routine molded around your work day. That doesn’t just disappear the minute you retire.
Habits take a while to break, and addiction is one such habit. We associate the pleasure of a high with the substance in question, and even when it proceeds to destroy our lives piece by piece, our brains have been wired a certain way to accept that this certain habit is useful. Rewiring the brain to understand that it’s the opposite of helpful is possible, but it takes time and practice. Specifically, you need to initiate a new behavior to replace addiction and practice that behavior diligently to eliminate addiction.
This is the key to brain plasticity and, in a way, part of why humans have the capacity to learn languages and develop the technology. We can learn and relearn, think and rethink, think critically, apply concepts across different disciplines of thought, and develop innovations in the design and application of knowledge. Even when we develop a deeply-ingrained habit, we can break that habit by out-practicing it regularly enough. This same brain plasticity lets us adopt new patterns and quickly adapt to environments where unusual behavior is necessary for survival.
This is different from choice, but it’s also different from treating addiction as an uncontrollable disease. While it shares some characteristics of chronic disease, it’s healthier to see addiction as a protocol of actions the brain has encoded into your behavior. This malicious protocol, while resistant, can be deleted through your efforts and hard work.
It’s Not Just About Habit
However, not every case is as simple as taking a drug for the hell of it and then having trouble getting off it due to the habitual behavior it has become. While the recovery in and of itself is necessary even for these cases, many who struggle with addiction first turn to it not to break a taboo or because of social circumstances but to eliminate a certain negative emotion or feeling. Mood disorders, anxiety, and a history of trauma or other mental conditions are common in those who struggle with addiction because addiction is an excellent coping mechanism when the only goal is to forget and stop feeling a specific way.
Overcoming the addiction habit in cases like this requires an alternative way to cope with these issues. You can’t endeavor to destroy and give up your addiction if you don’t have any other means of dealing with depressive thoughts and panic attacks. In cases like this, the priority lies in tackling the mental condition before figuring out how best to take on the addiction caused by self-medication.
The Difference Between a Habit and Something Habitual
For clarity, it’s not entirely accurate to consider addiction to be nothing more than a habit. It’s a much stronger association – we may develop habits like typing on a QWERTY keyboard instead of AZERTY or any other combination of keys, but changing those habits is simpler than challenging an addiction. However, addiction is habitual, rather than being an on or off switch in your brain that determines whether you’re trapped in an endless cycle of relapses.
You can do something about your addiction, but it requires understanding the details of your specific case. Why are you addicted? How did you become attracted to the feeling of a high? What can you do in life to feel happy and fulfilled without longing for another hit, another cigarette, or another drink? Understand your relationship to your drug or drugs of choice, and you’ll have a clearer understanding of what you need to do.
Last medically reviewed October 13, 2022