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The line of distinction between a habit, compulsion, and an addiction is often a blurry one. Because misdiagnosis related to a substance or behavioral addiction can carry such weight with regards to an individual’s present and future beliefs about themselves and their behavior, education on and clarification of these terms is necessary. The severity with which someone classifies substance or behavioral use in themselves or others will determine the way that the individual thinks about themselves going forward and how they determine their need for professional care and treatment. When struggling with a substance or behavioral issue, one of the worst things an individual can do is to misdiagnose themselves as an addict and assume their use is more severe than it really is. Under-diagnosing can also be problematic, if not more problematic, as downplaying the severity and damage caused by preoccupation with a substance or behavior can mean that the appropriate level of help is not sought or received. Because a level of self-diagnosing is often done before a professional assessment is sought, here is a guide to help add clarity to what constitutes a habit, compulsion, or addiction. These definitions are not intended to replace or delay a professional diagnosis or to delay you or a loved one from seeking professional help if the current situation is damaging to yours or their health or life.

What Is a Habit?

A habit is defined as a repeated action or behavior that may not be consciously recognized. In other words, habits are things you do so often that you do not think about them. According to The American Journal of Psychology, a habit is defined as:
"... A more or less fixed way of thinking, willing, or feeling acquired through previous repetition of a mental experience."
Because the behavioral patterns behind a habit are imprinted in our neural pathways, it is more difficult to break old habits than to form new ones. However, it is possible to form new habits through consistent repetition. “Habit loops” are created when a behavior results in a reward or a positive feeling, and over time the habit becomes automatic and the reward becomes less necessary. Studies show about 40% of people’s daily activities are performed in almost the same situations. Some habits are classified as nervous habits, including sniffling, nail-biting, stammering, and these are often the result of insecurity, tension, and anxiety. “Bad habits” are classified as undesirable patterns of behavior, like overspending, fidgeting, and procrastinating. Other examples of habits include brushing your teeth, setting your alarm clock before you go to bed at night, or locking the door before you leave the house. One of the key things that differentiates habits, compulsions and addictions is willpower. If a person has enough control over their behavior to decrease it or stop it, then it is a habit. If the person does not have the ability to decrease or to stop their behavior after a certain period of time that has been dedicated to halting or removing the behavior, then their behavior may be more compulsive or addictive.

What Is a Compulsion?

Compulsions cause people to exhibit behavior that they find undesirable, but are unable to prevent. When a person has a compulsion, he or she is trapped in a pattern of repetitive and senseless thinking. According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), compulsions are:
"Repetitive behaviors or mental acts that a person feels driven to perform in response to an obsession. The behaviors are aimed at preventing or reducing distress or a feared situation. In the most severe cases, a constant repetition of rituals may fill the day, making a normal routine impossible...Although the compulsion may bring some relief to the worry, the obsession returns and the cycle repeats over and over."
Some examples of compulsions, according to the APA, include:
  • Cleaning: To reduce the fear that germs, dirt, or chemicals will “contaminate” them; some spend many hours washing themselves or cleaning their surroundings.
  • Repeating: To dispel anxiety, some people utter a name or phrase or repeat a behavior several times. They feel anxious or stressed when these repetitions aren’t completed.
  • Checking: Rituals such as checking to see that the door has been locked or the stove turned off are seeded by a desire to reduce the fear of harming oneself or others. For example, some people repeatedly retrace driving routes to be sure they haven’t hit anyone.
  • Ordering and arranging: To reduce discomfort, some like to put objects such as books in a certain order, or arrange household items “just so,” or in a symmetric fashion.
  • Mental compulsions: In response to intrusive obsessive thoughts, some people silently pray or say phrases to reduce anxiety or prevent a dreaded future event.
Compulsive behaviors can be highly difficult to overcome. Compulsions are often created to reduce anxiety, yet they often perpetuate anxiety. The more a person holds back, the greater their compulsion becomes. People with extreme cases suffer from a mental disorder called Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Those with OCD cannot control their compulsions.

What Is an Addiction?

An addiction is defined as a compulsive need for, and repeated use of, a habit-forming substance or behavior. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIH), an addiction is a:

"Chronic, often relapsing brain disease that causes compulsive [substance or behavior] seeking and use, despite harmful consequences to the addicted individual and to those around him or her. Although the initial decision to [use] is voluntary for most people, the brain changes that occur over time challenge an addicted person’s self-control and hamper his or her ability to resist intense impulses to [use]."
Addiction is a mental disease that can affect a person physiologically, psychologically, behaviorally, and emotionally. An individual who is addicted is often unable to control their craving for the object of their addiction, despite understanding the damage it is causing or could cause, and frequent relapses after promising themselves or others that they will abstain. A key difference between addictions, habits and compulsions is that addiction has the greatest impact on the physical makeup of the brain. Scientific studies have shown there is a neurochemical aspect to addiction, because it interferes with the normal action of neurotransmitters in the brain and central nervous system. Addictive substances and behaviors provide a shortcut to the brain’s reward system by flooding the brain with dopamine, a neurotransmitter that regulates emotion, motivation, and feelings of pleasure. When activated at normal levels, this system rewards our natural behaviors. According to the NIH:
"When some drugs of abuse are taken, they can release two to ten times the amount of dopamine that natural rewards such as eating and sex do."

How Habits, Compulsions, and Addictions Overlap

All habits can be loosely viewed as compulsions, because there will always be pressure to act in a habitual way. Compulsions can also be viewed as habits. For example, a person who washes their hands for ten minutes after each meal may categorize this behavior as habitual, but the person’s psychological pressures and subconscious may reinforce it into a compulsion. The key difference between a habit and a compulsion is that it is easy to interrupt and break a habit if it is consciously noticed. Habits and compulsions become addictions when a chemical dependence is created. For example, drinking can be habitual if you always have a bottle of beer with dinner, but it is likely to become an addiction when you consume multiple bottles a day to help generate positive feelings or mask negative feelings. Compulsions are confused with addictions because both seem to render the individual almost powerless over their craving. Addictions differ in that they impact the physical and chemical makeup of the brain and do so to the detriment of the individual, their personal life, and their family. Compulsions are also not as difficult as addictions to treat; addictions generally need more intense medical and professional attention, counseling, treatment, and rehabilitation.

The Importance of Knowing the Difference Between a Habit, Compulsion and Addiction

Knowing the difference between a habit, a compulsion, and an addiction can help you to better understand the effects of drugs and harmful behaviors on the brain and body. Habits can be harmful if they turn into compulsions, and compulsions even more so when they develop into addictions. An understanding of each of these terms can aid in addiction prevention and can be an indicator for when it may be appropriate to seek professional attention for an addiction. If you are suffering from an addiction, there are plenty of resources that can help. The Addiction Advisor has addiction advisors you can call to receive the guidance you are looking for. Call {{ thedmsgrp_calltracker_phone() }}. Sources: