Why Is Addiction A Disease?

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Shorter Version


Est. Reading Time: 2 Minutes

Addiction doesn’t care who you are. It affects teens and young adults like it affects middle-aged and older ones. Addiction doesn’t care about your age, educational background, race and ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, financial status, or even your health. It can affect anyone. Thus, the biological and psychological factors connected to it can make recovering a life-long journey. Thankfully, it is still possible to heal and manage the condition.

But is addiction a disease? Most experts agree that yes, addiction is a disease. As a result, it’s important to understand how addiction works because if you’re unsure of its cause and effects, you will be unable to seek the treatment you need. 

Just like with any other chronic condition, overcoming an addiction will not be easy – or fun. Because addiction doesn’t ever fully go away, you must learn how to effectively manage it.

Unfortunately, addiction can be a very lonely condition, mainly because most addicts hide it from others, especially friends and loved ones. Addicts have a habit of closing themselves off from people out of shame and a fear of being judged. Many of them do not realize or accept, in some cases, that they have a disease – a biological condition.

What makes addiction a disease?

Most of what we currently know about addiction stems from the “disease model” of addiction. According to this model, addiction is a neurobiological disease that affects various bodily systems, including, and most importantly, the mind.

Instead of linking addiction to a lack of “self-control,” “a conscious choice,” or “bad behavior” (like going to parties and having too much to drink or being too curious and experimenting with drugs), the disease model asserts that brain chemistry and function changes (over time) with repeated exposure to a particular vice (i.e. drugs or alcohol).

For instance, chronic alcohol abuse changes the structure, chemistry, and functioning of your brain over time. These neurological changes trigger illogical thoughts and maladaptive behaviors like driving while drunk or getting into fistfights at bars.

It’s not just addicts who don’t understand the origin and function of addiction, it’s also society. Society has a way of blaming addicts for their addictions, even though it’s not their fault. The fear of being shunned, criticized, or ostracized keeps many from getting the treatment they need to heal.

It also colors how they see the addiction. Because society, in general, views addiction as a “choice,” addicts typically feel like the addiction is their fault – when it is not. It is a disease just like asthma, diabetes, high blood pressure, etc. 

Addiction is not a choice

It has taken decades for much of the world to come to grips with the fact that addiction, in large part, is not a “choice.” Biology plays a significant role in its development and progression. But, the struggle is not over yet. 

More research, experts, and people need to recognize the true origin of addiction. Only then will the stigma be removed. There is still much to learn about addiction like individual causes, risk factors, treatments, and future outlooks. But with each passing day, we become more informed on what is needed to help addicts achieve long-lasting recovery.

Skip to Actionable Steps





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Longer Version


Est. Reading Time: 3 Minutes

What exactly is a “disease?” A disease involves a wide range of factors and is defined as any condition that triggers specific symptoms or targets certain areas of the body. A disease can be acute or chronic (long-lasting or indefinite) and it can affect various areas of your life, health, and well-being. 

Understanding the definition of “disease” can clarify why addiction is a disease rather than a “choice.” Addiction fundamentally changes or alters how your brain transmits messages and how the body receives them. More specifically, addiction alters your perception of vices. 

How addictions start

Most addictions begin innocently. Daily drinks with colleagues after work or partying all weekend long with friends can spark an addiction in people who are vulnerable to addictions. It doesn’t happen to everyone who engages in these behaviors which is why some researchers believe that there is a biological (gene) component to addiction. These researchers believe addiction is hereditary. 

This brings us back to the concept that addiction is more than just a matter of “willpower.” No one sets out to become addicted, it is out of their hands. And, because addiction is a chronic, systemic disease, it is not easy to stop or “cure.” It must be properly managed at all times – most likely forever. 

What happens in your brain when you have an addiction

Addiction impedes your decision-making capabilities while seizing your brain’s rewards system. Your rewards system uses dopamine and serotonin receptors to help you determine if you like or want something. If you do, it encourages you to seek more of it.

For instance, if you have some drinks at a party or while out with friends and you like them, your brain releases dopamine and serotonin which provide the “happy” or “feel-good” sensation that comes with enjoying the drinks. Because drinking made you feel good, you are most likely to do it again.

Addiction hijacks the part of your brain responsible for dopamine and serotonin production and tricks your body into believing you need the vice to feel good, well, or happy. You believe that if you don’t receive it, you’ll be unable to function or even survive. As you begin to engage in addictive behaviors, the more you’ll need to get the same effects.

All of these components can alter your brain chemistry, leading to a host of addictive behaviors. This is why addiction is a disease. This, coupled with the increased risk of relatives (parents, children, siblings, etc.) struggling with addiction, should leave little doubt that it is a very real disease. 

Genetics of Addiction

Although genes appear to play a significant role in the development and progression of addiction, anyone can become addicted. Addictions are non-discriminatory. They can affect anyone, background history, or not. Rich or poor, educated or uneducated, male or female, young or old – no one is immune.

Overcoming the disease of addiction

The only way to take control of an addiction is to change how your brain processes the addiction and to reframe how your brain views the addiction. Because, if you can alter your thought processes, your body will follow suit and your behavior will stop. The good news is there are steps you can take to reframe how you see your addiction so you recognize it as a disease and not a choice. Once you acquire this knowledge, you’ll be on your way to recovery

Actionable Steps


1

Research addictions

One of the best ways to really understand your addiction is to research it. There are several books available that will help you see how your addiction is a disease and not a “choice.” These books include: The Disease of Addiction: A Twenty-First Century Understanding and Beyond, Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding Addiction, and On the Other Side of Chaos: Understanding the Addiction of a Loved One.

2

Talk to someone you trust

If you are struggling with an addiction, talk to someone you trust like a parent, friend, or sibling. It’s often easier to talk to someone who loves you. And, although you may still experience embarrassment and shame, talking about your addiction with someone you trust can take the edge off the big reveal. Remember your friends and family love you and only want to help you heal and manage this disease.

3

Join a support group

The good news is there are tons of online and in-person addiction support groups for you and your loved ones. These groups provide you with some much-needed support while you navigate the symptoms and treatments. You can also learn healthy coping mechanisms from others who have the same or similar experiences. 

4

Eat a healthy diet and get enough rest and exercise

Just like with any other disease, a healthy diet, adequate rest, and exercise can help improve your symptoms and combat the disease. Healthy foods contain nutrients that can strengthen your immune system, while sleep and movement can leave your body feeling rested and strong so you can properly battle (and win) your addiction. 

5

Seek the appropriate treatment

Seek the right help for your disease. You want to look for doctors who see addictions as diseases and not choices or a “lack of willpower.” If you consult with a therapist or physician who sees addiction as your problem instead of a condition, he or she is not the right doctor for you. 

Addiction should be seen, diagnosed, and treated like any other disease. If the doctor’s proposed treatment plan does not reflect a disease model then seek another doctor. You deserve a doctor who will give your condition the same respect he or she gives any other condition.

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About the Author


Dr. R. Y. Langham

Dr. R. Y. Langham

Ph.D. in Family Psychology

Ree has a Master’s in Marriage and Family Therapy (M.M.F.T.) and a Ph.D. in Family Psychology. She spent over ten years counseling families, couples, individuals, and children on adjustment issues such as blended families, same-sex couples, dysfunctional family relationships, relationship issues, etc. Now she writes for famous health organizations and is a published author.
Full Bio | LinkedIn


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