What Role Do Habits Play in Addiction?

What Role Do Habits Play in Addiction?

Addiction is more than simply a bad habit, but habit plays a strong role in addiction development and continuation. The New York Times explains, “Addiction is brought about by the repeated pursuit of highly attractive goals and corresponding inattention to alternative goals.” Getting high on an opiate like morphine or getting drunk is often an attractive goal at first, as the reward system is stimulated by substances. Alternative goals that do not create the same rush of pleasure or distraction from emotional or physical pain come to seem less important. The things that provide lasting, real pleasure with no negative side effects, such as time with family and friends and engaging in favorite hobbies, do not provide the same immediate positive feedback and so lose perceived value on both conscious and subconscious levels. New pathways are developed in the brain, and the connection between the drug and the reward becomes secondary to the automatic response of the brain to drug-related cues. Addiction begins because the reward system is stimulated by a substance, but as the pursuit and use of drugs or alcohol is repeated, it becomes more than a matter of feeling good or avoiding feeling bad.

How Habits and Addiction Develop

Habits develop when we come to associate actions with cues and do so on a level that is deeper than conscious thought. As the British Journal of General Practice (BJGP) states, “Within psychology, ‘habits’ are defined as actions that are triggered automatically in response to contextual cues that have been associated with their performance.” Actual changes to the brain occur when habits develop, as habits create neurobiological paths and shortcuts. These shortcuts mean the brain can jump from stimulus to action without pausing for conscious reflection. Elements of choice and decision are removed once habits are developed, and it takes time, effort and psychological tools to reroute habitual connections, insert conscious decision and form new, healthy habits.

No one makes the choice to become addicted. Few people who recognize the harm alcohol or drugs are causing in their lives want that harm to continue, yet negative behaviors continue despite best intentions. This is a defining feature of addiction, and it is a feature of habits as well. Habits become more, and less, than choices, and they continue regardless of intention. NPR.org explains, “Once a behavior had been repeated a lot, especially if the person does it in the same setting, you can successfully change what people want to do. But if they’ve done it enough, their behavior doesn’t follow their intentions.” Once a behavior is habitual, it takes more than choice to no longer engage in it. When an addictive substance is involved, choice has even less influence, as individuals must overcome both their own neural changes and the influence of the substances. This doesn’t mean individuals can’t decide to end addiction, but it does mean that turning that decision into action is not a matter of willpower and takes outside help.

Changing Habits and Ending Addiction

With help individuals can learn how to combat habits and therefore the habitual aspects of addiction. Addiction recovery involves more than getting rid of habits or creating new ones, but those two actions do play a large and significant role in recovery. Changing habits and addressing addiction often begins with changing the environment by removing the external and physical cues for use. NPR.org shares, “To battle bad behaviors then, one answer is to disrupt the environment in some way.” Addiction and other habits are strongly tied to physical place and environmental cues. This is one reason rehab is such an effective tool for combating addiction. It allows individuals to step outside their environment, and their environment-cued habits, so they can begin to recognize the role habit has played in their drug or alcohol use and so they can address the aspects of addiction that go deeper than automatic responses.

Once habits and environmental triggers have been undermined by a change in setting and routine, individuals can begin to build the skills needed to return to potentially triggering settings. Because addiction is more than just a habit, recovery takes more than just moving or experiencing new things. After change comes the need for stability and the creation of positive habits. Without these individuals are likely to return to negative habits and develop new addiction-related cues and triggers. A stable recovery and balanced life needs just that: stability and balance. When you are battling addiction or any behavior related to habit, forming new habits is essential for sustainable change. New habits come from changing how you interact with and respond to the environment, and they come from repeating healthy actions and thoughts.

If you are struggling with an addiction to morphine or other substance and ready for change, call our toll-free helpline. We are here 24 hours a day to connect you to the resources you need for long-term addiction recovery.