Most major public health institutions in the U.S, such as the American Medical Association, currently recognize addiction as a disease and not merely a moral failure. NIDA (National Institute on Drug Abuse) states that substance addiction is “a chronic, relapsing disorder characterized by compulsive drug seeking, continued use despite harmful consequences, and long-lasting changes in the brain.”
Many people immediately perceive addiction as a disorder related to substances. While many addictions are indeed substance-based, other forms are referred to as behavioral addictions, in which a person compulsively engages in a specific activity. These may include shopping, gambling, sex, or virtually any activity that produces a flood of feel-good neurochemicals in the brain.
Addiction symptoms can range in severity from mild to severe, and, in many instances, they are chronic and can last an entire lifetime. Addiction, just like cancer or diabetes, is deeply rooted in genetic, behavioral, and environmental factors.
Many experts posit that genetic predisposition may account for as much as half of the likelihood that a person will develop an addiction. However, addiction can also be a product of the many physical and emotional changes that occur when an individual experiments with substance use.
An individual’s genetic propensity toward addiction often combines with substance abuse and other factors, such as emotional stress. Process or behavioral disorders are somewhat different in that they do not involve the ingestion of a chemical product that interferes with the brain’s function. However, they do include an increase in brain chemicals that people respond to by repeatedly engaging in an activity, despite the incurrence of negative consequences.
Untreated addiction, regardless of form, can lead to severe emotional and sometimes physical health complications that tend to get worse over time. Other consequences, such as legal, financial, or social problems, are also more likely to occur. Addiction to substances is often life-threatening, and it’s not uncommon for an individual to suffer from multiple issues.
How Addiction Hijacks the Brain
People feel satisfaction or pleasure when basic survival needs, such as hunger or thirst, are fulfilled. These feelings are related to the release of certain brain neurochemicals, such as serotonin and dopamine.
Substances with addictive properties cause the brain to produce unnaturally large amounts of these chemicals, which creates a euphoric high, or feelings that far exceed normal feelings of reward and pleasure. Behavioral addictions, such as those related to gambling or sex, operate similarly, but the effects may not be as severe without a direct chemical element to ingrain them.
Over time, the continued increase in the release of these neurochemicals, such as dopamine, changes brain regions associated with reward and motivation. As these changes develop, a person becomes dependent and will begin to require that substance to feel relatively normal. Similarly, a person with a process addiction will engage in a particular behavior to increase the feel-good chemicals associated with it.
Long-term substance use also typically causes tolerance due to the body’s propensity to diminish its response to mind-altering substances upon repeated exposure. Tolerance is a state in which the individual begins to require ever-increasing amounts of a substance to achieve the desired effects. Behavioral addictions also tend to continue to get worse for similar reasons related to increases in neurochemicals like dopamine.
A person experiencing addiction will likely fail to attend to other responsibilities and once important activities in favor of substance use or engagement in a behavior with which they are obsessed. In the most extreme instances, addiction can lead to a person not caring about their own welfare or that of loved ones.
These neurological changes usually persist for an extended period, if not permanently, and long after the person stops engaging in addictive behavior. These lingering changes may leave addiction sufferers particularly vulnerable to cravings and environmental triggers, which can dramatically increase the risk of relapse.
The Argument on Addiction: Is It a Disease or Choice?
A chronic disease is a long-term, stubborn condition that, although incurable, can often be managed or at least controlled using various therapies and treatments. Many people with addiction have a severe and long-lasting disorder that adversely affects their lives in a myriad of ways. For these people, addictions are often accelerating, relapsing conditions that require intensive treatment and long-term maintenance to sustain.
However, even the most severe forms of addiction can be managed, and many symptoms are reversible. This can be achieved through participation in a comprehensive addiction treatment program and the continued administration of professional therapies and support.
In nearly every sense of the word, the nature of addiction resembles that of other chronic diseases. The truth is that many other conditions that people suffer from were entirely avoidable if they had made healthier lifestyle decisions. Still, few accuse these individuals of choosing to have their condition. While their choices don’t often make them a target for moral platitudes, addiction, and the stigma that surrounds it, may do so for others.
Moreover, people can choose to experiment with substances, but they don’t choose to have an addiction. Even those who have behavioral addictions experience brain changes that are, at the very least, temporary. Such changes, also seemingly mostly emotional, can be just as long-lasting and severe as primarily physiological diseases.
The Myth of Willpower and Moral Failure
The decision to use a substance is indeed every individual’s free and conscious choice. However, after the brain’s functioning has been consistently altered by repeated drug use or the engagement in a specific activity, the person’s willpower becomes impaired. As a result, they will have lost a great deal of control and restraint over their addictive behavior.
Moreover, people who suffer from addiction should not be entirely blamed for it. All individuals make decisions about whether or not to use a drug or engage in a behavior, but they do not control whether or not they will ultimately become addicted. Some can experiment with substances and can do so occasionally or decide it’s not for them. Other people can gamble in Las Vegas while on vacation and not feel an intense need to do it on other occasions.
But all people are unique, and our brains and bodies respond to events and triggers in different ways. While someone might become addicted to sex or gambling, another person might become dependent on alcohol or heroin. Some people will never develop addictions. Much of the time, individuals who become addicted to substances or behaviors are emotionally damaged individuals who have untreated mental health conditions and/or the experience of trauma.
Is There Another Side to the Story?
As noted, most experts believe that the disparities between people, their biology, and their experiences are why some can control their substance use or behavior, while others cannot. Nevertheless, many individuals still believe that addiction reflects a person’s moral failings, and deciding to use is the primary problem.
This perception, however, is very unhelpful, and instead, it fosters the false assumption that an addict could just quit if they would choose to be “moral”. However, the truth is that almost all people with an addiction find it nearly impossible to sustain long-term sobriety by adopting a higher morality alone, without a significant degree of professional help.
Treatment for Addiction
Just Believe Recovery offers comprehensive treatment programs intended to provide clients with the tools, skills, and support they need to recover from an addiction fully. Although there is no one “cure” for addiction, it is very treatable and can be effectively managed for a sustainable period.
If you are motivated to begin the recovery process, contact us today to take your first steps in recovery! Discover how we help individuals free themselves from the shackles of addiction and begin to enjoy the fulfilling lives they deserve!