Addiction as a disease is often a difficult concept for not only the addicted individual but also for their friends and loved ones.
At one time, addiction meant a sentence to asylums and mental institutions. People saw addiction as failure of will or an issue of insanity. Today, fortunately, science has helped shift this attitude. Addiction affects the brain just as disease does and is now recognized by The American Medical Association and The American Society of Addiction Medicine, as well as other medical associations, as just that: a disease.
Addiction is a combination of changes in the brain and the body.
It is perfectly normal to experience pleasure from food, sex, a song that brings happy memories, or other stimuli. The brain releases dopamine when these pleasures are experienced. However, once triggered by an addictive substance, the brain’s pleasure centers are overly stimulated. After continuous over-stimulation, the brain’s threshold for pleasure/dopamine release increases, requiring increasing amounts of the addictive substance to make the individual feel normal. When the addictive substance is no longer present, the pleasure sensors in the brain create strong cravings for more of the substance.
This pleasure system in the brain, known as the limbic system, is also responsible for negative emotions and responses.
An addicted individual will crave these substances in reaction to negative emotions. When the user loses a loved one, has negative encounters at work, or experience conflict with friends, the brain will automatically want the stimuli to counteract the natural negative emotions that result.
The good news is that regardless of the effect that chemical dependency has on the brain, freedom is possible.
Because the brain is affected by external circumstances, addiction as a disease is treatable. Implementing coping mechanisms for these emotional triggers is attainable. There are many successful treatment options available. Inpatient and outpatient options, as well as 12-Step Programs, have proven successful.
NIDA and NIAAA commentary strongly supports brain disease model of addiction. (2015, July 29). Retrieved January, 2017.
Volkow, N. D., & Koob, G. (2015). Brain disease model of addiction: why is it so controversial? The Lancet Psychiatry, 2(8), 677-679. doi:10.1016/s2215-0366(15)00236-9