To answer this question simply, yes, addiction is a disease.
“But don’t people choose to take drugs and alcohol? Aren’t they responsible for addiction, then? No one asks to be diagnosed with cancer, but people with addiction choose substance use, right?”
Initially, yes – you might choose to order an alcoholic beverage or might agree to using drugs once as a result of peer or environmental pressure. And yes, you are responsible for that choice.
But hardly a soul decides to have a drink with dinner and decides in the same moment to become addicted. Because of the way these chemicals overrun proper brain functioning, after a certain point the addiction has become a full-fledged mental illness.
Defining drug addiction
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “Addiction is a chronic disease characterized by drug seeking and use that is compulsive, or difficult to control, despite harmful consequences. The initial decision to take drugs is voluntary for most people, but repeated drug use can lead to brain changes that challenge an addicted person’s self-control and interfere with their ability to resist intense urges to take drugs.”
In fact, addiction is now frequently referred to as “Substance Use Disorder” and is classified among common mental health disorders like anxiety and depression. Because substance use disorder is so difficult to overcome on one’s own, and requires both medical and therapeutic interventions, it is appropriately classified as a disease in the medical community.
Effects of drugs and alcohol on the brain and body
While many might be unconvinced that drug addiction isn’t a choice, evidence about the impact of addictive substances on the brain show, in fact, how quickly an individual can lose control over what might have been previously considered a bad habit.
First, the chemical dopamine is released in the brain when cognitive functioning is properly working; it tells you that it is good to engage in rewarding behaviors that benefit your life, such as eating and enjoying the community. Many drugs target this reward system and force the release of such high levels of dopamine that your body is immediately, subconsciously rewarded for taking the drug.
From this state, the brain begins to learn that it no longer needs to release these chemicals on its own and it relies solely on the drugs. But this also means that the more you use, the more your tolerance grows, i.e., the more of the substance you need to consume in order to feel the same high. Suddenly your body is so full of dangerous chemicals, you may be putting yourself at risk of overdose without even realizing it.
Depending on the substance being consumed, be it a hallucinogen, a stimulant, alcohol or a combination, you may experience a number of long term effects to proper cognitive functioning, including challenges with:
- Decision making;
- Judgement, such as whether or not an idea is wise or foolish;
- Memory and learning;
- Behavior, such as the inability to control emotions.
In addition to mental complications from drug use, physical complications like a compromised immune system, risk of liver damage and/or failure, heart complications and permanent brain damage are all possible risks.
A loss of self control
Possibly one of the strongest arguments against drug addiction as a choice lies in the truth that substance use addiction is characterized as a loss of self-control as a direct effect of the hijacking of the brain.
When the brain is under the influence of a hijacked reward system, it becomes hyper-focused on receiving this reward over and over and over again. And even if an individual sees the damage that this addiction is inflicting on their life, they might be completely indisposed to do anything about it.
Someone battling addiction often shows signs of withdrawal, lack of motivation or disinterest in previously enjoyed activities. This is not because they want to live this way, but because their brain isn’t allowing them to focus on anything else as a direct result of these addictive chemicals.
Recovery is possible
While addiction might not be a choice, recovery is. Just as a chronic physical illness requires treatment, so, too, does a disease like addiction requires treatment.
Trained mental health therapists, such as those at Rehab After Work, are dedicated to helping you or your loved one find the treatment they need to overcome the disease of addiction. To get in touch with someone today, call Rehab After Work at 610-644-6464.