Is Drug Addiction Really a Disease?

Drug use typically starts as a matter of choice. People are exposed to substances that they find appealing, and they experiment to sate their curiosity, fit in, or to heighten or alter their moods. Drugs aren’t taken for their taste, smell, or texture, even though drug users may find some of these characteristics appealing. Instead, they’re used for their ability to produce dramatic changes in how people perceive the world around them, how they perceive themselves, and ultimately, how they feel.

When drug-induced changes in mood or perception are especially pleasant, those who were once merely experimenting begin to use substances routinely. Over time, as experimental use moves closer to addiction, people can find themselves repeatedly using substances even though the drawbacks of doing so greatly outweigh the perceived benefits. Once the point of addiction is reached, habitual drug users lack the power to stop themselves. This is due to changes that have occurred in their brains over time. It is also related to the different ways in which individual brains respond to drugs. Thus, if you or someone you love is struggling with drug addiction, this problem is less about lack of willpower, lack of fortitude, or bad decision-making. Instead, drug addiction or substance use disorder is a disease.

Many prescribed and illicit drugs trigger feelings of euphoria that make people feel incredibly relaxed and absolutely pain- and stress-free. Although these changes might be characteristic of certain substances, they can be heightened in individuals who are genetically or other otherwise predisposed to addiction. For instance, if a substance triggers the release of “feel-good” chemicals like dopamine, someone with a higher likelihood of dependence will experience a significantly greater dopamine release than others who are using the same substance. Not only are there physiological precursors to addiction such as this, but there’s also a greater likelihood of experiencing significant changes in overall brain function. Sadly, when addiction remains untreated and drug use is prolonged, certain changes in brain chemistry and overall brain functioning can eventually become permanent.

Secondary, Co-Occuring Disorders that Increase the Likelihood of Addiction

Like many diseases, substance use disorder can have various underlying causes. For a very large number of people, addiction develops as the result of efforts to medicate themselves. For example, someone who lives with chronic anxiety or chronic depression may use drugs or alcohol to elevate their mood. Without having underlying mental health disorders diagnosed and treated, substance users are only able to get the relief they need via drug use. Unfortunately, many co-occurring mental health disorders or comorbidities are actually exacerbated by drug use. As a result, the very same substances that people rely on for alleviating their discomfort will eventually start heightening their symptoms. People who drink to alleviate depression will gradually find that drinking no longer drowns their sorrows, and that it actually makes them feel more depressed. Worst still, by the time this recognition is made, significant brain changes have already occurred that keep them from making the conscious decision to quit.

Understanding addiction as a disease is often a tremendous relief for drug users. Drug use and the many negative consequences it entails can fill addicts with overwhelming guilt, shame, and regret. Countless failed efforts in recovery can make addicts feel unworthy of happy, stable lives, and good health. In reality, failure in recovery usually means that the treatment received was either too short in duration, or lacking the right elements for meeting a person’s unique range of needs. When people recognize substance use disorder as a disease, they can move pass their guilt, regain their sense of self-worth, and start working on recovery from a mindset that’s actually conducive to success.

One major benefit of understanding substance use disorder as a disease is the recognition that efforts in recovery are ultimately lifelong. People who complete drug or alcohol addiction treatment can never return to “casual” drug use or “casual” drinking. For these individuals, the brain is hard-wired to respond to substances in a way that invariably leads to loss of control, and a rapid downward spiral. Addiction cannot be cured. It is a long-term problem related to both inherent differences in brain chemistry, and changes in brain functioning that drug use itself creates. However, addiction can be effectively managed with the right tools, resources, and support. Accepting that substance use disorder is a disease enables recovering addicts to commit to ongoing recovery treatments such as relapse prevention programs, accountability partners, and support groups among other things. If you’re ready to make a commitment to achieving wellness, and to freeing yourself from the overwhelming pain and loss of drug addiction, we can help. Call us today at 833-364-0736.