Whether it’s the constant tapping of a foot or the biting of fingernails, many people would probably admit to some habit they have or would like to get control of. It can indeed be a real challenge to quit a bad habit, especially if they’re pleasurable and you don’t want to stop. For example, maybe you’ve heard someone regrettably express that their cigarette smoking is a bad habit; so, why can’t they just choose to stop? Is it really just a “bad habit,” or could it be turning into an addiction?


Understanding “Habits”

Currently, there is not a consensus on one definition for the term habit. As a result, various, nuanced scientific definitions seek to accurately encapsulate what habits are and by which biological mechanisms they operate. Generally, though, habits are said to refer to “behaviors that are emitted frequently or in a persistent, automatic manner.” 

Repetition of behavior over time in a particular setting can create a habituation behavior that you may carry out automatically. Although habits are typically discussed negatively, they can help us accomplish daily tasks and necessary routines without the brain needing to use energy on conscious thought. For example, “good” habits may include driving the same route to work every day, washing a dish as soon as it’s used and always having water by the bedside at night. Likewise, there is a phenomenon called decision fatigue, where a person only has enough energy to make a number of decisions throughout the day. Routine can help limit this kind of mental fatigue and enable us to make decisions that matter.

On the contrary, behaviors that result in pleasure, like indulging in chocolate cake or playing a few poker games, can cause dopamine to be produced in the brain. Dopamine is a chemical messenger that, among many other important functions, makes you feel good. Dopamine surges trigger your body to crave more cake or wins at poker, reinforcing the behavior. These pleasure-inducing behaviors can become detrimental to your physical and mental health and, at this point, can be even harder to break. In other words, repetition plus dopamine is a recipe for developing a bad habit and subsequent addiction or substance use disorder (SUD).


Internal Reward System & How It Relates to Addiction

Your drug or alcohol habit may feel even harder to break because it might not be just a habit anymore. Maybe you find that your daily life is being disrupted and you can’t seem to get things done as you could before. The cravings won’t go away and you don’t feel in control nowadays. It’s as if you need the substance just to feel OK. Feeling dependent on a drug or alcoholic drink can be understandably confusing and frightening.

If you feel like this, the substance has likely influenced changes to your internal reward system, which is responsible for moderating those cravings. Once your “bad habit” starts to compromise your health and the relationships you have, the line separating a habit and a substance addiction may have been crossed. You might want to consider some of the signs of SUD and reach out for support to regain control again. 


Signs of Substance Use Disorder

A substance use disorder (SUD) is defined as a chronic, relapsing neurobiological disease characterized by compulsive drug use despite negative consequences. This definition includes a spectrum of severity in drug or alcohol use, ranging from mild, moderate and severe; addiction is the stage at the severe end of the spectrum. If you’ve been struggling with a particular drug, consider these behavioral, social and physical symptoms common in persons with SUD: 

  • Using substances in physically hazardous situations such as while driving/operating machinery
  • Periods of unusual hyperactivity, agitation or giddiness
  • Frequently getting into trouble (i.e., fights, accidents, illegal activities)
  • Sudden change in friends or hobbies
  • Unexplained need for money/financial problems
  • Bloodshot eyes and abnormally sized pupils
  • Deterioration of physical appearance

This list is not exhaustive. Nevertheless, you may want to consult with a physician if you have experienced any of these symptoms. Further, if you have a known mental health disorder, a SUD can worsen it and make management of either disorder more challenging. 


Creating “Good” Habits 

Breaking bad habits can be challenging, so creating good habits can be the helpful and necessary answer. Engaging in a new daily behavior can act as a coping mechanism for the bad one you’re trying to cut. For example, some smokers that are trying to quit might try chewing gum or using toothpicks. Marathon running and music production have guided some individuals through recovery and have allowed them to be successful in avoiding relapse. In other words, try replacing your bad habit with a healthy, ritualistic one like exercising. Whatever works for you. 

Another tip is to set daily mental goals for managing the habit, including avoiding tempting situations where the behavior might be encouraged. Acknowledging and creating a management plan for bad habits can be an essential step in preventing an addiction from setting roots. 


Habits can be tricky and persistent behaviors to kick as you may be unaware while engaging in them. Sometimes habitual behaviors are good because they allow you to go about routine activities without using a lot of mental energy required for important decision-making. On the other hand, repetitive behaviors tend to turn sour when associated with an important brain chemical called dopamine; the combination of repetition and dopamine can lead to the development of much more than a bad habit. Becoming aware of potentially harmful habits and managing them through the creation of new, healthy ones could help you gain control again. You may want to consult a physician if you think you’ve developed a bad habit with a substance as it could lead to a substance use disorder. Addiction is a burden to carry, but there are resources in West Los Angeles, California, to help you. At Authentic Recovery Center, we treat various drug and alcohol use disorders, in addition to co-occurring mental health disorders. Call us today for more information on how we can help you at (866) 786-1376.