Is addiction a disease or a choice? That question has fueled countless debates over the years. Though there is solid evidence supporting both sides, the scientific and biological proof that drives the concept of addiction as a disease is paramount.
What causes a person to first pick up a bottle or take a few pills may be a choice, but the deeper issue of addiction is anything but. Like other diseases, addiction is the product of a series of environmental, psychological and biological factors baked together into a dangerous concoction.
What is the Disease Theory?
The disease theory of addiction essentially looks at addiction as a medical illness that can’t be controlled without ongoing treatment. Addiction has been classified as a physical disease due to the cycles of cravings and withdrawal symptoms it produces. It changes the way the brain functions, leading people to do things against their expressed will. This is where choice ends and chronic illness begins.
Addiction and the Brain
Drugs tap into the brain’s communication system and physically change the way the brain processes information. This causes the brain’s reward system to be flooded with feel-good chemicals, sending the user into a state of euphoria. The overstimulated reward system of the brain reinforces the behavior of drug use, leading to the desire to use again.
These pathological changes in the brain result in overpowering urges to use. Even if a person expresses a sincere desire to quit using, they’re drawn to take whatever steps are necessary to obtain their drug of choice. The disease completely overwhelms them—their thoughts, feelings and actions—until the only thing they’re able to focus on is using, as though their life depends on it.
Addiction and Survival Instincts
The survival instinct drives people to seek out resources that will trigger the brain’s reward sensors, i.e., when people eat, they feel full and satisfied. As time passes and behaviors are positively and consistently rewarded, a body begins to make the connection between the act and the feeling of pleasure it produces. Eventually, people start to crave the behavior more and more until it becomes an automated routine.
Addictive drugs evoke patterns of behavior similar to those prompted by natural rewards. As the user falls deeper into addiction, though, that single behavior starts to take precedence over all other instincts, including eating, sleeping, working or even caring for children. Addiction becomes their dominant survival instinct, which is one reason giving it up is so challenging. Their body yearns for it and feels the need to fulfill its instinctual goal.
Treating Addiction as a Disease
It is no secret that treatment can help people quit using, avoid relapse and successfully recover, but finding a treatment center that focuses on treating addiction as a disease may be the most effective option. It focuses on mental health as a whole, digging into a person’s past and exposing events that may have triggered them to start using in the first place . This allows people to heal from the inside out, removing the baggage that has held them down for so long.