Addiction: is it a Disease?
Though addiction is now officially recognized as a disease by the medical community, it comes as a surprise that the debate was only formally settled in 1987. The much-disputed classification had been initially muddied by stigma and questions of willpower, among other theories. However, doctors have confirmed that it is indeed driven by progressive changes in the brain, thus resulting in the compulsive, uncontrollable use of substances. While this determination has propelled the disease of addiction into a more public sphere, leading to greater research and professional help being available, it is still misunderstood and often underrepresented within our society.
Addiction itself is very complex and has been studied by researchers for years. Though initial use is voluntary, the person ingesting the substance usually believes they can control their use, but when repeated use continues over time, those key changes in the brain begin to occur. From there, their addiction is born.
As the addiction progresses within a person, their behavior and thought processes change. It becomes the most important thing in their world, and gradually begins to usurp everything else in its path that might be taking away from ‘feeding’ it. This usually looks like consequences ranging from poor job performance, lack of focus, neglecting relationships, and maintaining personal hygiene. It can also lead to trouble with the law, difficulties at home, housing instability, and dealing with dangerous individuals to obtain the substance of choice. Once the substance user is financially compromised because of their addiction, homelessness and unemployment can occur. The list of damaging consequences is extensive, but one thing is for certain: those consequences do not deter the person from continuing to use, despite all the reasons to stop. They are simply unable to because of the nature of the disease.
How Substance Abuse Affects the Brain
As mentioned above, addiction being understood as a disease links back to how long-term use or abuse of prescription drugs, street drugs, or alcohol causes changes in the brain chemistry and its functions. For example, opioids bind the natural opioid receptors in the brain. Stimulants and depressants increase dopamine and serotonin levels. Substances affect the rewards system in our brain because of the euphoric effects they often elicit. Our bodies react to the pleasure they experience, and so the natural instinct is to want more of that (cravings), and repetition is encouraged.
Here, the differentiation between rewards and means of survival is blurred—the systems in the brain that monitor pleasure and motivation are impaired, and begin to only respond to the powerful feelings the substance brings, or that it once brought. After perpetual, repeated use, the result is tolerance for the substance, persistent cravings, and taking larger doses of drugs or alcohol to satisfy those cravings.
To add another layer to the complexity that is addiction, it is far more difficult to quit a substance when it co-occurs with underlying mental health problems, which is known as comorbidity. According to the National Institutes of Health, it affects 7.7 million adults, and occurs when a person has two or more disorders. These include:
- Anxiety disorder
- Bipolar disorder
- Eating disorders
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
Issues such as those listed above can be present in the person before they begin using substances, or they can be brought on by their addiction. It can be challenging to identify or ‘comb out’ one from the other, but it is possible to treat them concurrently in a dual diagnosis program that will address both.
Is Addiction a Disease You Can Overcome?
As the disease of addiction continues to be studied, so does the treatment for it. A person who is addicted to substances will likely not be eager to give them up, as they have become the most important thing in their lives. It is a crutch or comfort they believe is the only thing worth living before. If they are willing to address it early on, all the better. More common, however, the person must reach a place of desperation and truly want the help for themselves. Once a desire to get help is established, the steps toward treatment can be taken. This often involves medication-assisted detox and mental health treatment.
Medically-supervised detox is recommended to avoid the risks of severe or life-threatening physical and psychological withdrawal symptoms when trying to quit from an addictive substance. This is a good way to get someone into long-term treatment—once they are physically feeling better, the idea of feeling better mentally will likely be appealing. With that said, the detoxing stage leaves a person very vulnerable to relapse, so getting to a medical detox will give them the best chances for recovery.
Detox can last a few days to a week, depending on the severity, length of time, and types of substances used. Trained medical professionals are available to help manage the detoxification symptoms and most comfortably rid the body of substances. Clients are monitored around the clock, and begin to participate in therapeutic groups as they begin to feel better.
After medical clearing, therapeutic treatments are implemented to address the psychological component of a person’s dependence. This can include various types of therapy, peer workshops, Step work, and other processes that have shown to assist people in early recovery. Meditation and spiritual work are also regarded as highly beneficial to strengthen mindfulness and grounding within a newfound sober reality.
Recognizing Relapse as a Part of the Process
While addiction treatment programs address both physical and psychological dependence in an effort to cover all the bases, it is important to note that 40 to 60 percent of individuals treated for substance use disorder are likely to suffer a relapse. For this reason, it is important to have a proper plan in place, including treatment goals and support systems, such as aftercare/sober living. These limit exposure to unsavory environments that could encourage a relapse, and provide ample resources to help the person best arm themselves against their addiction and begin a productive and happy life.
As well as we know addiction is a chronic disease of the brain, we also know that it is a treatable condition. With the right treatment, the healing process can begin. If you or a loved one are faced with the disease of addiction, please know that recovery is possible. Our Admissions Representatives are available 24/7 at 855.712.7784, and will be happy to help get the process started.