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Is Addiction a Disease?

addiction disease model

For those who live with it, substance use disorder often feels like a personal shortcoming. After experiencing countless consequences of substance use, addicts continually return to the same self-destructive behaviors.

They blame themselves for lacking willpower and being too weak to make the life changes they desperately want and need. More importantly, they long for the time when they’ll finally be strong enough to overcome the urge to use. In reality, however, addiction is a disease.

Addiction is Physical

This complex disorder of the body and brain makes it virtually impossible for users to quit independently. When addicted individuals stop using substances outright, their bodies send out painful signals of severe distress. Known as withdrawal symptoms, these signals can include headaches, digestive upset, insomnia, tremors, and extreme fatigue. In many instances, they can even include terrifying events such as hallucinations and seizures.

These and other withdrawal symptoms indicate that the body has become chemically dependent upon drugs or alcohol and that it’s no longer capable of functioning without them. Understanding addiction as a disease alleviates much of the guilt and shame that substance users feel, and it ultimately sets the stage for successful recovery. By seeking help, people can access the right tools and support for overcoming the chemical dependency that’s been keeping them trapped.

Because it develops in phases, addiction is a very deceptive disease. People often start using substances because they make them feel good and because they have a very strong sense of being able to control or stop their substance use whenever they want. Drugs and alcohol stimulate the release of dopamine and endorphins in the brain. During the early stages of addiction, people may continue using to experience the same sense of elation that these “feel good” chemicals provide.

Sadly, over time, long-term substance users eventually find that they’re no longer capable of feeling good without using. That’s because drug and alcohol abuse fosters change within the brain’s structure, and within the brain functioning itself.

As these changes occur and become increasingly more severe, tolerance is built and larger amounts of the same substances are needed to simply maintain a sense of normalcy. At this point, users are chemically dependent upon the substances they use, and minimizing their substance use or abstaining entirely is no longer a matter of choice.

What Does Addiction Mean?

Addiction is a term that people often use loosely. It’s common to assume that a person who’s abusing drugs is addicted given the undeniably negative impact that substance use is having on their lives. However, drug or alcohol abuse is actually quite different from addiction. With abuse, people still have the ability to consciously choose to quit.

Although abstaining for these individuals is bound to be both physically and psychologically uncomfortable, they won’t experience extraordinary and potentially dangerous levels of physiological distress. Conversely, once addiction has been reached, not having drugs or alcohol can affect how the entire body performs. For instance, feelings of shakiness, excess sweating, and achy joints can also be paired with marked fluctuations in key vital signs. Addicts in withdrawal can experience:

  • Dramatic fluctuations in blood pressure
  • Dramatic fluctuations in blood sugar
  • Heart palpitations and chest pains
  • Extreme mood swings
  • Noticeable decreases in memory and cognitive functioning

During substance abuse, the brain is constantly fighting against chemical changes that affect its normal functioning. This fight leads to significant and sometimes permanent changes in neurological performance. Once these changes have occurred, stopping substance use outright can be dangerous, especially if detoxing is done without medical support. In fact, in some cases, detoxing alone can be downright deadly.

What Defines an Addiction?

Ultimately, the primary difference between addiction and substance abuse is choice. Unfortunately, people aren’t always aware of exactly when the power of choice is lost. Given that the neurological changes dictating the power to choose are unseen and ultimately unknown to the substance user, choice can be lost at any time.

Substance abuse is a dangerous precipice that can, at any moment, send a person hurdling headlong towards full-blown addiction. In short, addiction is a disease that leaves a person powerless to help themselves.

Addiction doesn’t develop overnight. People begin by experimenting with substances and then gradually move on to regular use. When regular use becomes substance abuse, negative consequences are often experienced across the user’s entire life.

These negative consequences may include:

  • Job loss
  • Housing loss
  • The destruction of close relationships
  • Legal and financial troubles

From the outside looking in, it might seem like the consequences of substance abuse would cause a person to stop using, especially during the relatively small window of time when the choice to do so still exists. However, the most common response to stress, sadness, and other emotional triggers is to seek out the euphoria and relief that dopamine and endorphins provide. 

The brain has become less able to release these much-needed, feel-good chemicals on its own. Substance abusers trigger this release themselves by returning to the same very actions that have created their unfortunate circumstances. 

Is Addiction a Disease or a Choice?

The disease model of addiction holds that there are actually multiple factors that wrest away the power of choice. In addition to the neurological changes that cause addiction, other factors determine whether or not a person will start abusing drugs, and whether this individual will eventually be able to stop. These can be environmental, genetic, and behavioral in nature.

Studies have shown that some people are simply more genetically predisposed to addiction. For these individuals, the release of “feel-good” chemicals as the result of substance use is significantly heightened. The contrast between how they feel when using substances and when not using them is extreme. This makes them more likely to return to unhealthy behaviors than people with a more moderate chemical response to drug or alcohol use.

Many people use drugs and alcohol as a means for self-treating problems that have yet to be professionally diagnosed. Those living with untreated schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or post-traumatic stress disorder may start using substances to create the feeling of normalcy that they’re unable to enjoy without them. This is also true for many sufferers of chronic anxiety and chronic depression.

Unfortunately, although using self-prescribed substances can sometimes serve as an effective, short-term remedy to undiagnosed mental health disorders, substance abuse, and outright addiction can actually exacerbate the very conditions that people are attempting to resolve. 

Professional treatment for addiction mitigates the discomfort and dangers of withdrawal, even as it helps people identify the underlying causes of their addictions. According to the disease model of addiction, substance use disorder is not a curable disease. However, it is a problem that can be successfully managed. With medication-assisted detox, addicted individuals can safely overcome the first and most challenging stages of recovery.

These services are also designed to help foster a gradual return to normal physiological and neurological functioning. Patients in treatment are also taught the skills they need to confront stressors and other triggers without returning to their former patterns of using.

If you’ve been living with addiction, or if you’ve been abusing substances and suspect that your body is growing dependent upon them, we can help. Get in touch with us today at 833-991-2955 to find the right options in addiction treatment for you.