What some see as an addiction others might call a habit, and vice versa. How do addictions and habits differ, and in what ways are they similar? There are certainly examples that make it challenging to differentiate between addictions and habits, vindicating the ongoing debate surrounding this topic. It is my belief that the term addiction connotes a greater degree of negativity than does the term habit. We generally associate addictions with behaviors or practices that have severely deleterious outcomes. I also believe that we perceive habits as being easier to break than addictions. But with all of this in mind, the question remains: Are addictions and habits truly that different?
In order to compare and contrast addictions and habits, we must first look at the way these terms are defined. According to the online Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a habit is “a behavior patter acquired by frequent repetition or physiologic exposure that shows itself in regularity or increased facility of performance; an acquired mode of behavior that has become nearly or completely involuntary” (MWD, def. 7 a and b). The online Merriam-Webster dictionary defines an addiction as a, “compulsive need for and use of a habit-forming substance characterized by tolerance and by well-defined physiological symptoms upon withdrawal; persistent compulsive use of a substance known by the user to be harmful” (MWD, def. 2). Interestingly, orthodox notions of addiction indicate that addictions are formed to substances. Our modern day conception of addiction, however, includes addiction to things other than substances. For example, in this class we have learned that people can become addicted to behaviors, such as exercising. Clearly then, there is a fine line between what we call addictions and what we refer to as habits, although there are certainly distinguishing features of each.
According to one source, an addiction is different from a habit in that it is a compulsive need of a certain thing or substance to the body, which when deprived causes horrible effects. They go on to describe that a habit can be controlled or modified, while addiction cannot be controlled and requires professional intervention (differencebetween.com).
Let’s look at thumb-sucking as an example. Some newborns develop the habit just weeks after birth, but typically stop between the ages of 3 and 6. There are some babies, on the other hand, who come out of the womb sucking their thumbs; I was one of them. Needless to say, the behavior did not end until I was nearly 13 years of age (only after much effort and the realization that a severe overbite would reveal my private comfort-behavior). Given the great difficulty I faced ending my chronic thumb-sucking, I am inclined to classify it as an addiction. One moment is still etched in my memory: There was a time when I scraped my thumb and my desire to suck the thumb nearly trumped the excruciating pain I felt upon doing so. The pain of not sucking my thumb was nearly as agonizing as irritating the painful scratch on my small 8 year old thumb (the latter sensation being more plainly recognized as physical pain, as opposed to emotional/psychological). This was my first experience with withdrawal—and so my addiction began. Not only do I recall having great difficulty falling asleep that night, but I remember my mother comforting me as I whimpered in response to the unbearable and troublesome void I felt from not getting my “daily fix”.
After the initial end of my habit altogether, I found myself slipping my thumb back into my mouth from time to time, as a way of feeling the comfort I was accustomed to it bringing. I eventually stopped entirely, but I must admit that on rare occasions, I casually pop my thumb into my mouth (after washing my hands profusely), to see if it will bring me that same feeling of security, joy, and warmth. It’s just not the same, but that yearning returns at times (me writing this being one of those times, not surprisingly). Truthfully, I miss the ease and peace I remember it (the thumb-sucking) bringing me, but thankfully, nearly a decade later, I have found alternative and less maladaptive ways of finding comfort and peace within.
In comparison to most addictions, one is likely to argue that the “ease” and manner in which I stopped sucking my thumb does not follow patterns characteristic of addiction. I was able to do so with much encouragement, the fear of being socially shunned, a great deal of willpower, and some healthy competition (my younger sister stopped weeks before me…). More interesting, however, is that I did also receive professional medical help as a result of my thumb-sucking, although not directly for the behavior itself. Due to my chronic thumb-sucking, I developed what the medical world has termed a “trigger thumb,” essentially meaning that my thumb would get stuck in a bent position, and straighten with a snap. The procedure was a simple one (for the surgeon, I believe), and the condition is usually easily corrected with little complication, as was the case for me.
After recounting my days as a chronic thumb-sucker, I certainly do not truly believe that the behavior was an addiction. I do, however, think that this personal story can lend to our understanding of addictions, habits, and ongoing debated about how to differentiate the two. Although my experience was not nearly as severe and harmful as that of an addiction, there was undoubtedly some semblance to addictive behaviors. Ultimately, this begs the following question: Are babies who enter the world sucking their thumb born addicts, or just individuals whom developed an entrapping habit in the womb?