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Is It a Habit or Addiction? What Happens in Your Brain When You Start to Get Hooked

Neurologically the line between habit and addiction is a subtle one.

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The release of physical tension at the gym helped Jolie quite a bit and gave her mental relief. Often when she’d get home from swimming or a spin class, she wouldn’t feel the tension that had driven her to drink. This was a positive step toward weakening her habit, but the cue of coming home still triggered the desire to drink. Now that she was aware of it, however, we agreed that if it persisted after a few weeks, she’d participate in a 12-step program so she’d have someone to call to help her past that trigger.

By seeing habit as part of addiction, Jolie was able to work out a treatment plan with me that wasn’t too overwhelming, pathologizing, or frightening for her to commit to. As she recognized her difficulty in moderating her drinking behavior, especially when under stress, Jolie agreed to accept AA as an addiction-recovery resource. She now understood that her drinking was encoded in her brain in a way that went beyond an ordinary habit pattern.

At this stage, neurobiology’s biggest contribution to addictions treatment isn’t so much a distinct clinical method, but a means of increasing motivation for change. By destigmatizing clients’ shame and self-blame, brain-based explanations get resistant clients to listen to treatment recommendations they might otherwise reject. For therapists, this leverage may be brain science’s most important contribution to our clinical toolbox.

Margaret Wehrenberg, Psy.D., specializes in anxiety treatment, using a holistic approach for symptom management. She's the author of the forthcoming 10 Best-Ever Depression Management Techniques and of The 10 Best-Ever Anxiety Management Techniques.
 
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