We all have habits, they are the things that give form to our way of life, cues that tell us what to think and what to do. That’s why we say we are “creatures of habit”, we rely on them to create routine in our lives, to keep everything in balance.
So then what about addictions? Everyone seems to have a different opinion about when something is considered an addiction and even what can be considered addictive. Generally though “addiction” is a bad word, we don’t want to be labelled as addicted. We associate it strongly with things like drugs, and alcohol and gambling. We point fingers at people with addictions and tell them they’re bad and need to cut it out and make them feel like criminals for it.
So is it only an addiction if it’s a drug? What even is a drug? (that’s a whole nother webbed mess of opinions for another day is what it is). What about addictive behaviours? Like gambling… Or sex, or internet gaming (a fairly new phenomenon in the medical world). And then when do these behaviours become an addiction? Some people will claim that if you are going back to it every day then that’s that, you’re addicted. But there are things like caffeine, a drug, that many of us go back to everyday… Are we addicted to coffee then? Does it even matter? If it isn’t doing us any harm then isn’t it just a habit? Other people will claim if you can stop that habit – be it a behaviour or a substance, whenever you want to, then it’s not an addiction. I would probably agree with this, but how often do we hear addicts say that? As a bartender I can tell you I have heard it quite a lot! “Oh I can quit whenever I like, but I don’t need to.” OK fair enough, but if people around you are telling you that they see that habit as a problem, but you are blind to it and defiant in your ways… Then is that really true?
In my opinion if any habit you have comes to interfere with your daily life, causes you to disregard your values, gets in the way of your productivity, eats up all of your time, or maybe even starts impacting on your relationships or your health, then it is an addiction. That habit is no longer helping to create balance in your life, but rather being used to lean on to avoid the fact that you have lost that balance in your life- it is a crutch. And that could be using a “hard” drug that literally ruins your ability to lead a productive life, or drinking so much alcohol that it is ruining your friendships or ability to remain level headed. Or it could be something less sinister, like a habit as simple as continuously over-eating even when it is making you sick and groggy every morning, or staying up all night on your phone even when you know you desperately need sleep. Or maybe even more abstract things like agreeing with other people constantly even though it is taking you further away from your own values and morals, or always making sure people think you are right even when it is causing you to be in constant arguments with colleagues or friends. When you think of it like this you realize that any of us have the ability to create and abuse unhealthy habits. But why?
I’m calling on my one-and-a-bit years study of occupational science, and years of biology and sociology documentary binge sessions here… I’m not trying to pretend I have psychology degree or anything so take from this what you like.
We do things because we get something back from it. Habits teach us that particular things give us a particular response – eating a meal makes us full and content, sleeping gives us energy and motivation, finding a companion makes us feel less alone and maybe sharing a photo online makes us feel more connected and part of something… It’s all homeostasis, it’s survival. We are programmed to be working towards that balance in our lives always and we learn that certain things give (or remove) certain feelings, and as a result bring us closer to that equilibrium we all have an innate desire to return to. Essentially we want to feel happy, healthy and content – in our physical health, and in our mental and emotional health too. So having an instant and easy way to achieve this is addictive. Of course it is. So much so that often we are willing to overlook the long term effects if in the short term it will give us that feeling we are craving. It’s nice and easy, and that’s all we want. So just like sleeping will give you energy – make you feel “nice”, drinking alcohol might make you feel more lively, which is also “nice.” Cigarettes might take off the edge, yep, “nice”. A cup of coffee tells your mind you are ready for the next challenge of the day… And a big cheesy meal might make you feel content at the end of it, once again “nice”. Your sleeping pills might make you dozy and ready for bed. And maybe going on a run will give you that rush of endorphins to make you feel in control again. These things are all so different, but they all make us feel, in one way or another, “nice”. They bring us back to balance by giving us those positive feelings or removing those negative ones. But then we learn that some of these habits are easier, and in the short term, more satisfying than others. We realize that getting 8hrs of sleep each night is more difficult than just loading up on energy drinks everyday. Sleeping around is easier than addressing the loneliness we feel. And getting high is more enjoyable than dealing with the responsibilities of adulthood. These are all short cuts to avoid properly addressing the imbalance in your life. We make excuses to avoid other parts of ourselves because we can just use this habit to make us feel “nice” instead. It’s quicker, easier, often less painful and a lot less complicated than dealing with life itself… We stop growing ourselves in that area we are avoiding, we might even start neglecting some parts of our life around us… We start using that habit to make up for the imbalance in our lives that the neglect is creating… We make excuses for it… It is a slippery slope and suddenly you find that you feel you have to have that substance, do that thing, or behave in that way to keep that sense of control and balance. Suddenly that thing no longer just makes you feel “nice”, it is the only way you know how to feel “nice,” or even just “OK.” We are creatures of habit, and for that reason, I would go as far to say that anything can become an addiction. When misused anything can be a crutch.
Side Note: What I have been talking about here is very much behavioural based. So I do want to point out that there are certain habits – generally certain drugs, that have another whole layer of addictive qualities to them. Things like alcohol, tobacco, even caffeine to a point, and various illegal drugs- like heroin and cocaine, make not only your mind crave them (because of that “creatures of habit” thing), but your body too. I think a lot of people believe that only then can a substance be addictive, but I don’t think this is true – I sure know it’s not true for me! However, I would agree that when you add physiological addictiveness into the mix it gets a whole lot more difficult, and often dangerous.