Excessive substance use can start off as a behavior intended to reduce discomfort. Over time, this behavior becomes a habit—an action so ingrained that the brain performs it automatically, and a person may forget what it was like to not engage in that habit whenever they feel uncomfortable. This is the beginning of how habit becomes addiction.

When Habit Becomes Addiction

At first, these habits feel good to us. For example, a beer or glass of wine while relaxing after work might help an individual unwind. The brain begins to associate this behavior with positive feelings, a connection that becomes stronger over time and the more the behavior is performed.

Unfortunately, this positive association can continue to linger even after the behavior has negative consequences. A drink or two after work can turn into drinking before work or even on the job, leading to termination. The individual is now jobless due to their alcohol use. As this habit becomes addiction, the individual will likely still turn to alcohol for comfort because they have developed the habit of drinking whenever they experience negative feelings. The brain’s positive association with alcohol reinforces that behavior.

This association between a substance and pleasure can be broken. Although difficult, it may become necessary to form new, less harmful habits. A person can consciously choose to replace their old comfort habit with a new one that will eventually create its own “feel good” association with their brain, effectively replacing the old behavior.

Creating a New Habit

When choosing a new comfort habit, pick something that’s both healthy and personally enjoyable. Initially, it can be anxiety-inducing to perform this new behavior instead of the old one, and you may find that you’re acting against your instinct. Focus on the positive feelings and joy associated with your new habit when you feel a craving to perform the old one.

Acknowledging these cravings can also be helpful in establishing your new habit. By realizing how heavily you relied on the old behavior, you can deliberately choose to replace it with the new one. Adopt a verbal or physical cue—for example, standing up out of your chair or verbally declaring that you’re going to try something new–that you use whenever you’re going to perform the new habit rather than the old one. This cue slows your behavior down so you can make the right choice to pursue your new habit, rather than following your body’s instinct to indulge in the old one.

Over time, your new habit will begin to feel more and more natural, allowing you to move away from old, harmful behaviors. While you’re establishing your new, healthy pattern of behavior, practice self-care and forgiveness. Changing a long-established habit can be difficult and stressful, but it will pay off in the long run.

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