5 questions to help you decide if your habits have become addictions

We all have habits – things we do routinely every day.

Sometimes we do them automatically, with barely a second thought, like brushing our teeth, taking a shower or making coffee in the morning.

Then there are the good habits we have to work harder to maintain, like exercising, making healthy food choices and getting enough sleep.

And finally, there are the habits that may not be so good for us:

  • Over or under eating
  • Excessive gaming
  • Spending too much time on social media
  • Vaping or using tobacco
  • Drinking too much alcohol
  • Gambling, etc.

When habits become addictions
Sometimes it can be difficult to determine when a habit becomes an addiction. This is because both exist on a spectrum. They can overlap and have distinguishing features. 

The psychiatry experts at the University Health Center suggest asking yourself these five questions to help you decide if your habits may have crossed the line into addictions: 

  1. Do you find yourself craving the behavior and you feel like you have lost the ability to stop it?
  2. Are you preoccupied with this activity/substance to the point that it prevents you from doing other things you need or want to do?
  3. Do you continue this behavior even though it causes negative consequences physically, mentally and/or socially? 
  4. Do you have strong feelings about the behavior? For example, is it rooted in emotion, does it lead to feeling guilty/ashamed or do you feel defensive and resistant when examining your behavior?
  5. Do you have a physical dependence on the substance? Have you developed a tolerance to it or experienced withdrawal without it?

Why are addictions so difficult to change?
It starts with the brain.

Habits have been traced to the basal ganglia, the part of the brain involved in pattern recognition, memory making and emotions. Habits create a neural pathway in our brain that we can quickly and easily access when we perform common daily tasks like eating, driving and going to work. It frees us from needing to constantly maintain our attention and effort, which would be exhausting.

Addictions have been linked to the basal ganglia, too, but they also affect several other areas of the brain, including the prefrontal cortex, hippocampus and amygdala. These areas of the brain can potentially influence behaviors like decision making, impulsivity, motivation, learning and reward. It makes addictive behavior more difficult to break.

How to change a habit or addiction
The good news is the brain can change and adapt over time with support, conviction and sometimes treatment.  

Here are eight steps to help you retrain your brain and break a habit:

  1. Identify the cues that trigger you to repeat this behavior. Maybe it's stress, a smell or sound, a particular person, place or time or a certain ritual in your routine.
  2. Experiment with changing your routine to avoid these cues. For example, if drinking alcohol makes you want to vape, skip the drink or replace it with something else.
  3. Replace the negative behavior with a positive one. This breaks the neural pathway associated with the old habit. Instead of drinking alcohol while vaping, try going for a jog. It also helps to put more layers between you and the behavior you're trying to avoid, such as not keeping vaping supplies in your residence.
  4. Keep the new habit simple and specific. Potentially break it down into smaller steps to allow your brain to more easily adapt and allow the new behavior to become part of your autopilot routines.
  5. Reward your efforts. For example, you could use the money you saved on vaping to treat yourself to a night at the movies.
  6. Loop in your friends and/or family. If the people in your life know your goals, they can offer both support and accountability.
  7. Focus on the long term. Think about how changing this habit is consistent with your values and an investment in your future.  
  8. Be persistent. Remind yourself of times you may have been successful at making changes in the past. Go easy on yourself when you have a setback, then get back on track and remember change is possible. 

Addictions can be more difficult to change and for some people, breaking an addiction may require professional help. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. Many people need a little extra help, and asking for it is ultimately a courageous sign of strength.

If you think you may need help, the psychiatry team at the University Health Center is a great place to start. They will listen to your concerns, provide expert help and offer referrals if needed. Call 402.472.5000 to schedule an appointment.