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The Difference Between a Bad Habit and an Addiction

Is stopping by the bar after work every evening for two martinis a bad habit, or an addiction? Read on.

Is stopping by the bar after work every evening for two martinis a bad habit, or an addiction? Read on.

A new study suggests that drinking a bottle of wine a week increases the risk of cancer in women as much as smoking ten cigarettes, and that drinking three bottles of wine a week means that an extra thirty six women out of a thousand will develop cancer. Research over the past few years has turned the purported health benefits of alcohol on its head, particularly when it’s women who are drinking.

Nearly half of the clients I work with have a goal of cutting back on drinking, or quitting altogether. But, it can get tricky to discern between a bad habit and an addiction. Each require different paths of treatment, and impact the person in very unique ways. By the way, this does not only apply to alcohol, but to food, exercise, smoking, prescription drugs, and even sex and love. So, how are you supposed to know if you’ve got a bad habit or an addiction? Can someone who drinks “only” two glasses of wine every night be addicted?

A bad habit is an ingrained, learned pattern of behavior propelled by a stimulus and a response. It’s got a straightforward, routine quality to it, and a complete change can be made to break it within a period of a few months. An addiction is a complex and inflexible repeated behavior influenced by psychological, physiological and social factors. It’s often a coping mechanism for dealing with trauma or stressful emotions, and serves as both a distraction and a container that becomes increasingly necessary to function over time… until that coping mechanism caves in on itself. 

Whereas a bad habit can often be viewed as a nuisance or thoughtless behavioral pattern, an addiction is all-consuming, and will eventually erode your career, health, primary relationships, and self-esteem.

An addiction has an enticing quality, not unlike a secret lover—you’ll find yourself hiding, sneaking around, compromising, and making excuses over and over again.

Addictions and disorders — like an alcohol use disorder — trample over willpower and thrive on self-deception. As much as you say that you’re not going to drink for a week or a month, it may be all you can think about until finally, you rationalize caving in by telling yourself that you never really had a problem to begin with. Changing a habit can be hard work, but going to battle with an addiction often requires giving it everything you’ve got while altering your life constructs in the process.

So, to answer the question, “can someone who drinks only two glasses of wine every night be addicted?” YES. It is not the quantity that matters, but the consequences of that behavior and the difficulty in changing. 

For me, I knew that my relationship with alcohol had become an addiction when I could not stop drinking on my own, even though I’d given myself little challenges for years (Drynuary, “cleansing,” etc.). There were multiple consequences from my drinking which had started to impact my health, my relationships and my personal integrity. Alcohol had become my potion to suppress painful emotions and trauma. It took asking for help, and committing to addiction-focused treatment, to finally quit drinking (this year, I celebrate a decade of freedom from alcohol and cigarettes).

Action:

On the top of a sheet of paper, write down one behavior that is keeping you from living the life you desire. Fold it into two columns. In the first column, list all the consequences of that behavior. In the second column, write down all the potential positive aspects of changing that behavior. 

Power Question: 

In what ways is a bad habit or an addiction impacting your life? How might you be able to discern between whether it’s a habit or an addiction?

Thanks for reading! Have you struggled to discern between a bad habit or an addiction? Did something in this post resonate with you? Leave your thoughts in the comments section.

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