Understanding Addiction as a Disease
Addiction was officially declared a treatable disease in 1956 by the American Medical Association. However, the notion that addiction is simply a behavioral problem persists, and it can be difficult for loved ones and even the individual suffering to view their addiction as an actual disease. The mischaracterization that somebody dealing with an addiction is displaying a weakness of character contributes to the stigma associated with addiction, and minimizes the difficult struggle to overcome chemical dependency.
Defining addiction as a disease is an important classification, because it means it will be treated as a healthcare problem, assuring individuals the right to receive appropriate medical treatment for the disease, and access to private and public programs and insurance for treatment. Understanding and accepting the disease model for addiction can also be instrumental to helping those with addiction, as well as their loved ones, understand the disease itself, and the quality of treatment needed, and substantial effort required, to overcome it.
The Disease Model for Addiction
The origins of addiction are biological, neurological, genetic and environmental. The reasoning behind classifying addiction as a disease is because it is a progressively chronic chemical or biological issue that, if left untreated, can result in death. This is in sync with the traditional medical model of disease, which is that a person experiences an atypical condition that causes them dysfunction or suffering.
For addiction, the atypical condition is attributed to a genetic predisposition which can be exacerbated by environmental factors, such as peer associations and availability of drugs or alcohol.
According to a Study from the New England Journal of Medicine, three primary symptoms associated with addiction in this model include:
- Desensitization of the reward circuits of the brain
- Increased conditioned responses related to the substance an individual is dependent upon
- Declining function of brain regions that facilitate decisions making and self-regulation1
Addiction and the Brain
Within the medical community it is generally accepted that addiction is a brain disorder. According to the disease model, addiction is characterized by altered brain structure and functioning. It is these abnormalities in the brain that trigger a person with this disease to become addicted to drugs or alcohol, once they are exposed to them, whereas others who have similar exposure to drugs and alcohol do not experience the same level of dependency.
The brain composition of certain hereditary traits results in making someone more susceptible to developing a physical dependence once they are exposed to a rewarding stimulus, like getting high. Additionally, repeated exposure to that stimulus further strengthens dependence by deteriorating the brain function that is crucial to the motivation to be sober, even when facing extremely negative consequences, like disconnection from friends and family, loss of job, or loss of life. The part of the brain that self-regulates stops properly functioning, so that an addict will continue to engage in damaging behavior, despite their world around them falling apart.
Once a person becomes addicted, it is viewed as irreversible. Formal treatment is necessary to achieve recovery, however the individual will always carry the disease of addiction with them, no matter how long they remain sober. Under this viewpoint, it is not possible for someone to go from being addicted to say, alcohol, and be able to recover to the point of having a few drinks without relapsing.
Recovery within the Disease Model
The goal of recovery for a person suffering from the disease of addiction is total abstinence from the addictive substance. This can be understandably difficult to achieve, and those suffering addiction often relapse before successfully reaching a point of total sobriety. And as addiction in this model is considered irreversible, even one they reach this point it is considered a daily fight to maintain a life of total abstinence. Because of the way this model understands the workings of addiction and the lifelong commitment needed for true recovery, peer group support is seen as an extremely important step in the treatment process.
Sharing personal experiences with addiction and the recovery process provides a place of inspiration and positive mentorship to those struggling with addiction. Listening to others who are further ahead on the road to recovery can provide hope and motivation to follow through and build a life centered on sobriety. Knowing that others have successfully conquered this disease and have found a way to live with it is a tremendous motivator.