When Does a Healthy Habit Become an Unhealthy Addiction?

Orthorexia nervosa was first proposed as an eating disorder in 1998. Although not officially recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, sufferers of orthorexia have been described as being “solely concerned with the quality of the food they put in their bodies, refining and restricting their diets according to their personal understanding of which foods are truly ‘pure.’” It’s a disease, in other words, that seems uniquely and terrifyingly suited to our age of kombucha, collagen powders and juice cleanses, and one that evidences what happens when a habit becomes an addiction.

We are a culture compelled by habits, often believing them to be the surest paths to perfection: The idea that one tiny change implemented correctly could bring us closer to our ideal is extremely intoxicating. And often, habits can be wonderfully useful tools — waking up 10 minutes earlier becomes a morning yoga class becomes a more balanced and productive day. But coded within habits is the dangerous notion that perfection is possible. Suddenly, your stress-relieving afternoon jog becomes cancelled social plans in favor of a militant training schedule, or your routine glass of wine after work becomes two, then four. Living with obsessive, addictive habits means relinquishing your control to a complex machine of shame and pleasure. If this sounds familiar, it’s worth asking if your habits are ruling you.

When Good Habits Go Bad

Habits are driven by a circuit loop in the brain, one that starts with a cue or trigger (i.e. your morning alarm) that prompts a behavior (a 10-minute meditation) that provides a reward (lower stress levels throughout the day). It’s said to take about 60 days of this repetitive reward triggering for the brain to become dependent on the reward, and for the habit to become subconscious rather than effortful. That’s when making your bed each morning becomes as second nature as buckling your seatbelt.

The concern occurs when the habit is driven not by the benefit of the reward but rather by negative (and seemingly unconscious) emotional or biological cues: biting your nails when you’re stressed, say, or compulsively Facebook stalking your ex after a bad date. The brain, that magical animal, isn’t smart enough to distinguish between a good reward and a bad one; it is also vulnerable to dopamine-stimulating substances like alcohol and drugs that mimic biologically occurring “feel-good” hormones.

Dr. Kristen Fuller works at the Center For Discovery, a treatment center that focuses on eating disorders, mental health disorders and substance abuse disorders, and she says that rewarding these negative impulses and overindulging in these substances can actually change our brain chemistry by “rewiring the reward and pleasure pathways in the brain to create more intense cravings for these substances rather than natural rewards.”

If this sounds like your own experience, one way to investigate your dependance is to ask yourself what would happen if you were to give yourself a break. Does skipping your green juice trigger restrictive dieting behavior later in the day? Would you give up a spin class for an invitation to your friend’s first art show? If even the thought of making that kind of sacrifice triggers anxiety, it’s possible that you’re no longer able to mindfully and carefully weigh both the benefits and downsides of your habit. Other signs to watch out for? “Social isolation, moodiness, poor work performance, a lack of interest in old hobbies or a drastic change in sleep patterns or appetite can all be signs that a habit has turned the corner into addiction,” says Kristen. This is easier to recognize when the addiction involves a recognizable substance; less so when we’ve culturally coded a habit as “good,” such as exercise or healthy eating.

There is, of course, a wide and important gulf between feeling sluggish and moody if you don’t get your 9 a.m. oat milk latte, and the very real disease that is addiction. “Addiction usually stems from an underlying trigger such as depression, chronic pain, trauma, low-self esteem, abuse, poor relationships or chronic stress,” says Kristen. “Individuals that develop addictions usually have poor coping mechanisms to deal with their underlying triggers and turn to substances or harmful behaviors in order to self-medicate.” (Treating addiction requires care, attention, and therapeutic support that goes far beyond what one essay can offer; the American Society of Addiction Medicine resource list is a good start.)

Breaking Up with Your Bad Habits

So: What should you do if you are worried a habit has become something you can’t break?

“It’s important to recognize the underlying reason why this unhealthy habit developed in the first place,” says Kristen. Addictive behavior often stems from a traumatic event or a feeling that you’ve lost control — think work stress, the loss of a friend or family member or a breakup. Kristen recommends working with a professional to identify and address these triggers, then looking for new methods of gentler self care to heal. Because our brains are hardwired to crave both the pleasure and routine of established habits, it’s harder to go cold turkey on a bad habit than it is to substitute a better one. If an evening Instagram spiral has become your default after work activity, sign up for a class or schedule a regular date with friends who will hold you accountable. If you’re worried you’ve become too dependent on your after work cocktail to relax, try drawing yourself a bath as soon as you get home, or immediately pouring yourself a glass of sparkling water. Any concrete actions that interrupt the pattern the brain has come to expect can help it snap free of the pre-existing associations.

It’s also vital to have a support system of friends and family who can be your pillars when it comes to developing healthier behaviors. “Surround yourself with people who care about you and love you,” Kristen says, “and let go of others who do not.” Just as it’s easier to implement a good habit with the support and partnership of a friend, it is harder to undo a pattern of negative behavior when your social network reinforces it. Be open with the people you trust about the changes you’re trying to make and allow them to participate in your process.

Be open with the people you trust about the changes you’re trying to make and allow them to participate in your process.

Finally, try to get in touch with your inner skeptic. Ours is a culture that normalizes addictive behavior, touting wellness routines and diet recommendations as quick fixes for everything from a stubborn cowlick to mental illness. Becoming aware of where our habits have taken over our lives involves a willingness to unpack much of the media we are fed, and acknowledging the true complexities of the human body and brain. There is no one adaptogenic mushroom that will clear your skin and unburden you of anxiety, no matter how beautifully it’s packaged. We know this to be true but the noise can often be hard to block out. One of your best tools here is gentle but persistent mindfulness.

Breaking a habit involves short-circuiting our instincts, so take the time to notice the patterns as they are happening. Take a few deep breaths and get curious about what is happening in your body. What are you really feeling? What do you really want? What does that desire feel like? Where is it located? This line of curious inquiry can be enough to give you back the conscious control to make a different, more informed decision, and to remind you that you know your body better than anyone else.

Lastly, remember that 60 day rule. “Habits take the same amount of time to ‘break’ as they take to form, so habits cannot be broken overnight. It will take some time and hard work,” Kristen says. “Know that relapse may happen and do not beat yourself up over any setbacks, but rather have a plan in place for when this does happen.”

Collage by Louisiana Mei Gelpi.

Meghan Nesmith

Meghan Nesmith

Author Meghan Nesmith is a writer and editor living in Boston.

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