Is Addiction Really a Disease? – Taking a Look at the Facts

Tell someone you have a condition like diabetes, and they will almost certainly respond with concern and compassion. But tell them you’re struggling with addiction, and the reaction may be much, much different.

Yes, we’ve grown away from that a bit thanks to media, the internet and social commentary. But many misperceptions still remain when it comes to mental illness and addiction.

Here’s a look at the facts surrounding addiction and an examination of whether it constitutes a disease or not. Let’s dive in.

What Is Addiction?

It may involve the use of a substance, or it may mean a particular behavior. Either way, addiction “rewards” a person for the repeated use of a substance or behavior. Even when the consequences are demonstrably harmful, the addicted person feels the incentive to indulge.

A few of the many addictive substances and behavior are:

  • Drugs (legal and/or illegal)
  • Alcohol
  • Tobacco
  • Sex
  • Pornography
  • Gambling
  • Disordered eating
  • Internet gaming/Internet usage
  • Exercising
  • Shopping
  • Pain (e.g., cutting)
  • Stealing
  • Setting fires

Addiction can strike across all genders, classes, ethnicities, and ages.

Is Addiction Like a Disease?

The American Society of Addiction Medicine calls addiction “a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory, and related circuitry.” In plain English, this is not an issue of willpower or morality.

Addiction is a brain disease, a compulsive disorder. Of course, there is a wide range of mental activity going on during craving, but here are some sample breakdowns:

  • A person may feel helpless or powerless for several reasons. The discomfort of these feelings leads us to seek solutions. Addictive behavior gives us a false perception of empowerment. It provides us with a sense of regaining control.
  • In other instances, helplessness produces anger. Once again, this stems from a feeling of not being in control. Rage is a powerful catalyst for destructive behavior. Addiction is nothing if not destructive behavior; thus, it gives us that false feeling of empowerment.
  • You feel helpless. You feel anger about feeling helpless. But, in a state of powerlessness, you choose displacement. Rather than confronting someone or something that has wounded you, you reverse your powerlessness by choosing an addictive behavior. Your pain appears to be (temporarily) soothed, but, of course, the source remains. This pattern keeps the cycle going and deepening.

Is Addiction Really a Disease?

Yes. According to the American Medical Association, it is caused by a combination of factors:

  • Behavioral
  • Environmental
  • Biological (this includes the significant risk factor of genetics)

A few factors to consider include:

  1. Addiction is not a choice. Yes, of course, individuals can choose whether or not to partake in a substance or activity. However, people cannot decide how their body and mind respond to any substance or activity.
  2. People with an addiction are responsible for seeking treatment and maintaining recovery. But, they need empathy and understanding. Addiction is powerful, and a support system is crucial.
  3. It’s not fair to discount addiction as a disease because it involves choice. For example, a person who chooses to be sedentary and/or follow an unhealthy diet is not wanting to have heart disease. Actions have consequences, but that does not preclude the existence of a disease.
  4. As touched on above, addiction rewires the brain—specifically the reward system. This rewiring influences a brain’s ability to:
  • Make decisions
  • Remember
  • Learn
  • Control behavior

Everyone Deserves to Heal

The good news is that help is available regardless of how any individual perceives addiction. A full assessment is essential early on.

Also, addiction can trigger other conditions from anxiety and depression to hepatitis C and sexually transmitted diseases. Treatment will take an integrated form and be provided with dignity and respect.

Whether you are the person with an addiction problem, or it is someone you love, treatment begins with acceptance and a sincere request for help. Contacting a trained and experienced counselor is an excellent first step.

Please reach out to us today or visit my page on addiction recovery to learn more about how I can help.