To understand addiction is a complex condition that affects millions of people worldwide. Many of us struggle with addiction at some point in our lives. Understanding addiction as a disease that is treatable gives us a sense of inner peace, even if we don’t fully understand why it happens. This article explores the disease concept of addiction, and some of the causes, symptoms, and treatments of addiction.
Is Addiction A Disease?
The first question that needs to be addressed is whether addiction can be classified as a disease. There is some debate among experts as to whether addiction should be considered a disease. Some argue that it is not because it does not cause long term damage to the body. Others say that it is because people who suffer from addiction often experience withdrawal symptoms if they stop taking drugs.
There are many definitions of disease, but for the purposes of this article I will use the World Health Organization’s definition: “a broad category that includes any disorder with harmful consequences for an individual”.
Addiction has harmful consequences for those who are struggling with its use: it can destroy relationships and marriages; lead to homelessness; result in loss of employment and income, and even lead to death. Recent scientific research has shown significant and detrimental effects on brain chemistry and function, so it’s safe to call addiction a disease.
To Understand Addiction is Important
Our understanding of addiction and recovery has evolved tremendously in recent years. Today, we know that addiction is not a choice and that achieving long-term sobriety is an extremely difficult, but attainable, goal. To understand addiction we can better understand those suffering from the disease, allowing us to find inner peace in knowing that the person can recover with the appropriate treatment.
Yes, the use of a substance, regardless of its legal status, is a choice and the person’s personal responsibility. Yet, that choice is not unlike the choice of those whose chronic illness demands daily exercise, medication, proper diet, etc. All choice ends in a consequence, foreseen or unforeseen, healthy or unhealthy. The choice to not abide by my doctor’s prescribed diet could lead a person with cardiovascular disease to suffer a heart attack, or a person with diabetes to lose a limb. The choice of a person with an addiction to using an addictive substance could lead to unhealthy consequences.
So yes, the use of a substance is a choice, not unlike any other life choices we make on a daily basis. The difference, however, is that once the brain chemistry is changed and altered by the addictive substance, the physical impulse to continue to use is now automatic.
The person who uses a substance does not do so in an attempt to become addicted to it, just as the person who chooses to eat red meat and fried foods does not do so in an attempt to suffer cardiac illness. Therefore, the choice lies in the use of a substance (drug, food, etc), not in the resulting bodily changes manifesting in disease or illness.
“Addiction involves craving for something intensely, loss of control over its use, and continuing involvement with it despite adverse consequences. Addiction changes the brain, first by subverting the way it registers pleasure and then by corrupting other normal drives such as learning and motivation. Although breaking an addiction is tough, it can be done.” (Source: helpguide.org)
Today we recognize addiction as a chronic disease that changes both brain structure and function. Addiction damages the brain in a similar way to how heart disease damages the heart and diabetes impairs the pancreas. This occurs as the brain undergoes a series of changes, starting with recognizing pleasure and ending with an urge to repeat the experience.
“It’s common for a person to relapse, but relapse doesn’t mean that treatment doesn’t work. As with other chronic health conditions, treatment should be ongoing and should be adjusted based on how the patient responds. Treatment plans need to be reviewed often and modified to fit the patient’s changing needs.” (Source: nida.nih.gov)
According to research, the rate of relapse for those struggling with addiction is not more prevalent than that of other medical illnesses. Those who relapse with an addictive substance do so at the same rate as people suffering from other chronic illnesses. This means that addiction should be treated like any other chronic disease, with a focus on long-term management and prevention of relapse.
Addiction is a serious disease that can cause great harm to sufferers and their loved ones. However, with the right treatment, recovery is possible. By understanding addiction, we can better support those struggling with this disease and find inner peace by knowing that they can overcome their daily suffering.
The Brain and How It Changes When Addicted
There are many factors that contribute to addiction, but the most common cause is a chemical imbalance in the brain. This can be caused by a person’s genetics, childhood trauma, or even environment. Like other chronic diseases, addiction wreaks havoc on the brain. It impairs cognitive functioning and decision-making and can lead to changes in brain structure and chemistry. Over time, addiction can cause serious damage to the brain, making it difficult, yet not impossible, for people to recover and live healthy, productive lives.
“Substance abuse affects many parts of the body, but the organ most impacted is the brain. When a person consumes a substance such as drugs or alcohol, the brain produces large amounts of dopamine; this triggers the brain’s reward system. After repeated drug use, the brain is unable to produce normal amounts of dopamine on its own. This means addicted people may struggle to find enjoyment in pleasurable activities, like spending time with friends or family, when they are not under the influence of drugs or alcohol.” (Source: addictioncenter.com)
Addiction, therefore, is a brain disease that alters the way the brain functions, causing changes in behavior, thought, and emotion. The effects of addiction are not always permanent, but it takes time for the brain to heal and return to its normal state. Our thoughts and emotional reactions are mainly learned, so when an individual stops ingesting substances, the body physically adapts while the brain needs time for the person to learn new healthy thoughts and emotional responses to life.
It’s true that addiction has a personal responsibility component, but once the person’s substance use has chemically altered their brain, professional care and treatment are needed for long-term recovery. This process is not unlike that of any other chronic medical disease. Most diseases require personal responsibility and professional treatment for sustained recovery.
Addiction Treatment & Prevention
There are many different types of addiction treatment programs available, including outpatient, residential, and intensive outpatient. Some programs offer both short-term and long-term options. Since we know that addiction is a medical disease, treatment needs to address the holistic person, including their physical needs along with the psychological issues, adapting to healthy thoughts and emotions, along with the social aspect of utilizing new learned social skills.
Like other chronic diseases, addiction to alcohol or other drugs can be managed successfully so that you can live a full and rewarding life. Most people who go to treatment programs not only stop using alcohol or other drugs but also improve their occupational, social, and psychological functioning. Having a chronic disease means you will never get rid of the disease, but you don’t have to suffer daily from the disease.
Millions of people around the world are proof that recovery is stronger than addiction. I have been a counselor and administrator involved in addiction treatment since 1994. Decades of knowing people who have recovered to live healthy lives are proof that treatment is effective.
If a person is unwilling to seek treatment, be patient and continue to encourage them. One’s motivation to enter treatment does not have to be the motivation that keeps them in treatment or recovery. In other words, why they start treatment does not have to be “perfect”, they simply need to start the process.
It is important to understand that addiction is a chronic disease that is treatable. With proper holistic treatment, people can and do recover, living fulfilling lives. Understanding addiction and recovery lead to inner peace, which is an important goal for many of us.