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Habit or addiction? Know the difference and when to get help

Some people cannot start the day without a strong cup of coffee, others cannot ever be without their mobile phone and for some the workday has to end with a glass of wine. Senior Psychologist Dr Ian Smith examines our quirks and explains the difference between habit or addiction and when to get help.

Firstly, the definition of habit and addiction.


A habit is something you do on a regular basis because it triggers a temporary 'feel good' response from the brain.

Habits can be good such as doing regular exercise or bad such as eating too much junk food.

Importantly we can break a habit without your brain saying you need to start again, but this requires motivation.


Addiction is when you are compelled to use or do something in order to cope.

Addiction can occur when you have used a substance or done an activity for an extended time and it feels as though you have to do or use the substance to cope with life.

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The difference between habit and addiction

While habits make you feel good, addictions also lead to a feel good response in your brain.

The difference being that over time, your brain more and more requires the feeling you get from your vice, such as alcohol or drugs, to get the same response. This is called tolerance.

When you are addicted to something, your brain automatically classifies your addiction as a positive for your body and a ‘must have’.

Stopping an addiction is hard because your brain still craves the feeling your addiction gave you. We call this a physical addiction.

How can I tell if my habit is getting out of control?

You may be experiencing addiction if:

  • you feel anxious or unable to cope in a situation emotionally or physically unless you have your vice
  • it has taken over your life and becomes uncontrollable
  • you start to withdraw from responsibilities, social commitments or enjoyable activities
  • you begin taking unnecessary risks
  • it negatively affects your relationships
  • you become defensive about what you are doing.

What are the most common types of addiction?

In Australia, the four most common addictions are:

  • alcohol
  • smoking
  • illicit drugs
  • gambling

With the development of smart phones, there are now addictions to mobile phones and other applications on line such as online gaming, gambling and pornography.

Are all addictions the same?

Any addiction you develop results in the release of dopamine (the brain’s happy hormone), this feeling of pleasure is what maintains the attraction.

The difference in addictions is how it affects each individual on a personal level for example; financial, promotes social isolation and restricts activities which were previously naturally pleasurable.

What should I do if I think I have a problem?

The first step is recognising the problem and that it has taken over one’s life in a unhealthy manner.

The next step is to see a health professional who is experienced at assisting your recovery. Your GP is the best place to start as they can refer you onto the right care, including our alcohol and drug services, if needed.

If you don’t feel comfortable speaking with a doctor, you can access online help through Lifeline on 13 11 14.