We have all heard people casually say “I’m so addicted to…” or conversely, downplay their actual addiction by referring to it as a ‘bad habit’.  But what exactly is the difference between habit, compulsion and addiction?  And what does that mean for addiction treatment?

bad habit


  • Addiction has the most significant impact on the structure and chemistry of the brain.
  • A key difference between habits and addiction is that habits work like a reflex in the brain.

While addiction research and awareness have made major strides in the last decade, there remains much to be understood by medical communities and the greater society in regards to addiction and addiction treatment.

Perhaps the most significant shift in understanding addiction came in the 1970s when medical communities across the world began to recognise addiction as a disease. This concept trickled down to the rest of the population. Although this belief is held by many medical professionals, there is still disagreement among those in the addiction recovery field about this fact.

Is Addiction Really a Disease?

Addiction, on a biological level, is a disease.  But it also carries some fundamental differences from all other diseases, and takes place on multiple levels.

This is why it is important to treat addiction as a complex phenomenon that lies between disease and mental wellness. If we continue to simplify addiction, then this complicated and multi-faceted disorder cannot be properly addressed. If it is not properly addressed, it cannot be helped.

Here we deconstruct the unique nature of addiction and how it differs from habit and compulsions.

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Biological and Environmental Risk Factors for Addiction

Addiction has been called a chronic, often relapsing brain disease.

Addiction, like other illnesses, is brought on by both biological and environmental factors. Most leading addiction experts posit that addiction is 60% hereditary, wherein we inherit abnormal chemistry in the brain’s reward system in the brain; and 40% environmental, as our surroundings and exposure shape our propensity for addiction.  Addiction is fundamentally tied to the functionality and structure of the brain, hence its classification as a disease. In addition, as with diseases, if addiction is left untreated there can be dire consequences.

How Addiction is Different from Habits and Compulsions

This discussion of how addiction has similarities with disease is the main argument behind what separates addiction from a habit or compulsion. Addiction has the most significant impact on the structure and chemistry of the brain.


A key difference between habits and addiction is that habits work like a reflex in the brain.

When we are faced with a certain stimulus, the brain reacts with a behaviour that yields a reward. The behaviour is engrained and learned over time.  While rewards or goals are necessary in producing a habit, over time, the habit becomes independent of the reward. Hence, we have habits that do not serve us, and though we logically know this, those habits are incredibly difficult to quit.

Habits are contextualised in the classic experiment of Pavlov’s dog, where we see a reaction to a stimulus and a reinforcement of that behaviour with a reward.

While addictions involve habits, they remain distinct from each other.  Addiction compiles increased levels of motivation and intense cravings due to the effect of dopamine on the brain. In addition, addiction is not tied to a single stimulus or behaviour.


Compulsions are also different from addiction. Compulsions are repetitive behaviours that offer no reward, but the individual commits them uncontrollably. While the compulsion maybe spurred by the hope of a reward, the individual feels no relief once completing the compulsive behaviour. When someone suffers with obsessive compulsive disorder, their compulsions do little to nothing to ease their anxiety but remain a part of the individual’s repertoire. Unlike addiction, compulsions are not related to the reward system in the brain or dopamine levels. Compulsion are caused by mental wellness issues.

There is a lot of overlap between habits, compulsions and addictions. All of these human phenomena are distinct, but can and do co-exist. It is not unusual that an individual exhibits all of the above, as mental health issues and addiction often go hand in hand.


Treatment for Addiction

Addiction remains distinct and yet in the category of disease because of the brain’s involvement in development of addiction. It is important to assess the similarities and differences that addictions share with both habits and compulsions as the three intersect. Though we have discussed the differences, for the average individual who has not studied these complexities in detail, it can be difficult to tell the difference in your own life.

Clinical professionals at the Cabin Singapore are trained to pin point addiction and a proper treatment plan for each individual person. As mentioned previously, there is treatment for those with an addiction, no one is fated to spend the remainder of their life enslaved to an addiction. . If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, contact us today.