Alcohol Habit vs Addiction – How It Forms

Alcoholic or Bad Habit

In his book, Atomic Habits, author James Clear states that addiction is not just someone’s “bad habit.” So it makes sense to apply Clear’s habit forming (or breaking) concepts to addiction. 

Clear has taken the topic of habit creation, broken it down to bite-sized pieces, and provided suggestions to create good habits or eliminate bad ones.

3 Tiers to Habit Formation

He introduces the 3 levels of awareness in habit formation. The first level is to simply aspire to reaching a goal such as I will run a half marathon. The goal is clearly stated. Future actions can easily be applied to achieving it.

The second, deeper level is to change systems. This involves carefully looking at your current habitual behavior, then re-organizing, re-arranging, re-structuring your environment to achieve the goal. So, for running a half marathon, the systems changes may include: 

  • having two pairs of excellent training shoes
  • committing to a running partner
  • keeping the shoes, socks, and other running necessities prepped and ready at all times
  • having great music or podcasts saved just for the runs 

But it is the third and deepest layer of habit formation that caused me to think about my patients, acquaintances, friends, and family who are in recovery. This deepest level of habit formation comes when your identity itself is changed. Instead of the goal being to run a half marathon with all the systems intact—at this deeper level, the person thinks of themself as a runner

Habit Can Become Addiction

When does a person in recovery cross this rather magical line?  From my perspective, it is different for everyone. All people who have a substance use disorder, whether to opioids, alcohol, cocaine, pot, benzos—or a behavioral addiction, have unique stories and paths. These behaviors and substances allowed people to escape the suffering of anxiety, depression, boredom, and various levels of traumatic experiences, at least until the substances and behaviors became the cage rather than the key to freedom.

So even though James Clear, or any author who is an expert on the science of behavioral change has plenty to offer all of us, people with substance or behavioral use disorders will likely need additional counseling.

Habit Strategies in Recovery

If a person seeking recovery and sobriety would like to apply Clear’s strategies to helping them change their relationship to an addictive substance, how would that look?

Clear lists 4 stages in habit formation that he calls the Habit Loop:

  • Cue
  • Craving
  • Response
  • Reward

The cue triggers a craving, which motivates a response. The response provides the reward, which satisfies the craving, and ultimately becomes associated with the cue. 

As he breaks down each step of the Habit Loop, Clear has suggestions for intervening at each level. Following are the “Laws” he has come up with for creating a good habit, and the inverse of each law to break a bad habit.

To Create a Good Habit

The 1st Law: CUE – Make it obvious

The 2nd Law: CRAVING – Make it attractive

The 3rd Law: RESPONSE – Make it easy

The 4th Law: REWARD –Make it satisfying

To Break a Bad Habit

Invert the 1st Law – Make it invisible

Invert the 2nd Law – Make it unattractive

Invert the 3rd Law – Make it easy

Invert the 4th Law – Make if unsatisfying

If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction to opioid pain medications, heroin, fentanyl, methadone, buprenorphine, or alcohol and are considering sobriety, give us a call and learn about the programs the Coleman Network for Addiction Medicine provides. Please call us at 877-773-3869.

Joan Shepherd, FNP

This is the first post of a five-part series. Check out the other posts in this blog series here.

Recovery Starts With Finding The Right Detox Option For You.

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