Addiction vs Habit
Addictions have been around as long as excessive behaviors or habits have existed. From the minute that communication, conscious thought, and walking upright defined our species, we have probably had workaholic hunters, obsessive or compulsive gatherers, overeating cavemen and tobacco or drug abusers. Physicians, judges, the clergy, addicts, their families and the general public throughout history have been challenged by the task of defining the word addiction. Likewise professional people in fields such as medicine, psychiatry and psychology define addiction in terms that are appropriate to their areas of concern. For example , for the purpose of providing recovery, Narcotics Anonymous defines addiction treating as a disease because this makes sense to them and it eventually works for them as well. Depending on the definition and its purpose, the word addiction would emphasize things as physiological dependence, psychological dependence, family dynamics, behavioral problems, and morality, among others.
Addiction is a term that has been used in many ways, but if we search the notion of addiction we will find definitions that emphasize "the habitual and chronic use of chemical substances that alter physical or mental states" (Compton’s Encyclopedia Online, 1998). Consequently, we can think that compulsive habits such as surfing the Internet, watching certain television shows every night, working long hours or biting one’s fingernails represent addictive behaviors. Although, the word habit is intimately connected to the word addiction, the terms "addict" and "habit", which entered the English language many centuries ago, have distinctively meanings. "Addict" is a term that has its origin in Roman Law and it referred to "a person who was formally made over or bound to another, attached by restraint or obligation" (Compton’s Encyclopedia Online, 1998). On the other hand, "habit" originally referred to "the way in which a person held or exhibited himself, as in his manner of dress" (Compton´s Encyclopedia Online, 1998). This original meaning of habit has been retained in the expressions nun’s habit or riding habit, for example. This difference in etymology between "addict" and "habit" reflects the essential difference between these two phenomena of habit and addiction. The principal characteristic of addiction is the loss of control and freedom, while a habit is something that is assumed or donned, perhaps often, but it can nevertheless be removed if desired. In everyday speech, the words "habit" and "addiction" are often used, improperly or interchangeably. For example, people refer to "drug habits" and to "addictions to food, gambling, work" and even "running and skiing". In order to clarify the distinction between the two terms, particularly when they refer to substance abuse, the World Health Organization (WHO) defines "addictive drugs" as "those that produce in the great majority of users an irresistible need for the drug, an increased tolerance to its effect, and a physical dependence as indicated by severe painful symptoms when the drug is withdrawn" (http://www.who.com/addictions.htlm) . A "habit forming drug", on the other hand, is defined as "one that can cause an emotional or psychological, rather than a physical dependence in the user and one that can be withdrawn without causing physical harm or pain" (http://www.who.com/addictions.htlm) . Thus, the principal difference between habit and addiction, according to WHO, involves the type of dependence. If the dependence is purely psychological, it is considered a habit; however, if it is physical, it is considered an addiction.
Taking into account all the definitions consulted, if addiction is not a habit, then a habit is not an addiction but it can eventually lead to one. While "addiction" is always considered harmful and an "addict" is a person who cannot stop taking or doing something harmful (Longman Activator, 1993, p. 11) "habit" is not always harmful. A helpful habit and the process of habit formation can actually be beneficial. For example, learning to drive a car involves mastering a series of automatic behaviors or habits which help drivers react according to driving demands. Likewise, a harmful habit can eventually lead to an addiction. Addiction starts when the person begins suffering from a physical dependence. For example, when chemical activation of brain mechanisms control the individual’s behavior. Studies indicate that physical dependence begins at cell level. When a person is addicted to a specific drug for instance, cells become accustomed to working in the presence of it and will eventually be unable to operate normally when the drug is absent. This is the reason why withdrawal from an addictive drug for example, can be a very difficult and sometimes a no-turn-back process.
Breaking a habit, though different, is possible. It is a fact that a negative reinforcement or some punishment can help break an undesirable behavior. For example, in test animals, habitual behaviors can be changed or eliminated by applying an electronic shock or other painful stimulus after the behavior. In humans, undesirable habits can be changed by punishment or other forms of negative reinforcement such as our own dissatisfaction with our behavior or the disapproval of others. For example, if a friend is constantly biting his/her nails, or a person we know is always pulling his/her hair, we can make them realize that what they are doing is not healthy or good for them; conversely, in the case of young children, who are starting to develop their habits and personality, sometimes talking to them is not enough or perhaps they do not listen to us or understand how harmful a bad habit could be, so a punishment or a showing of our disapproval to their behavior can help them stop their bad habit . While the process of breaking a habit may be very difficult, the process of withdrawal from an addiction may be even harder. Symptoms caused by withdrawal may range from yawning, crying, sweating and runny nose to more frightening and painful ones such as shaking, shivering, vomiting, increases in blood pressure, temperature and breathing; in more severe cases symptoms are convulsions, respiratory failure and even death. In any case, family support and affection are very important in the process of breaking a habit or withdrawal. If the addict or the person who has a bad habit feels contained, supported and understood by his/her family and friends, the process of recovery may be faster and even definite. Although the family would find very difficult to adjust to this situation, love and caring are considered essential.
Having cleared the distinct concepts of "addiction" and "habit", I can conclude saying that the so-called 21st Century addictions such as netaholism, workaholism and shopaholism, among others, are just merely bad and harmful habits that have a high emotional and psychological impact on the life of the person who has this compulsive behavior, and on the life of the people around them. However, they can be stopped if the person strongly wants to. Addiction, on the other hand, involving a physical dependence, is far more harmful and destructive than a bad habit; it not also destroys the life of the individual, but also the life of the families. Addiction is responsible for the ruin of lives, and the annihilation of countless dreams. A disease to some, a weakness to others, this concept we call addiction, cunning and powerful, affects all of us. Directly or indirectly, addiction plays a role in each and every one of our lives. Whether in a relative, a friend, a co-worker or ourselves, we have all seen the destruction caused by addiction. Addiction is a multifaceted behavior that is as complex as the human being. There is no definition that encompasses all aspects of addiction. It is clear that addiction is a mesh of many forces in life converging on an individual who is driven towards a behavior that can be easily identified no matter the context. Social and environmental issues are also important in nurturing an addictive behavior. Attempts to study this have been developed with great difficulty, but most suggest that addictive behavior is greatly influenced by peer groups and ritual. The extent to which non-biological factors or habits play an important role in developing addictive behavior is not well defined. As research continues, however, the complexity of addiction unfolds, and questions continue.