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Disease Model Of Addiction

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How are Drug and Alcohol Addictions Like a Disease?

To those who have no first-hand experience, it’s easy to see addiction as a point of weakness. After all, how hard is it to just put down the bottle, stop using drugs, or stop eating so much?

In reality, the answer is more complex. Addiction isn’t a simple personality flaw as many people believe it to be. Rather, substance use disorder is an illness that requires professional assistance to treat. Those suffering from addiction are unlikely to change without guidance and medical intervention, just as with any other disease.

Like many conditions, including diabetes and heart disease, addiction is caused by a blend of behavioral, environmental, and biological factors. Addictive personalities even run in families, whether through nature or nurture, predisposing many individuals to struggles with addiction. Those suffering with addiction often have little control over their behavior, compulsively seeking out pleasurable activities regardless of any harmful consequences.

Addiction is a lifelong condition that cannot be cured, only controlled. If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction, it’s important to fully understand the disease of addiction. Once you understand substance use disorder, you can learn more about how to find the right treatment for yourself.

Understanding addiction as a disease is the first step to taking back control of your life.

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22% of mental health cases also have substance abuse disorders associated or contributing to the severity of the problem.

National Center on Addiction’s Disease Model of Addiction

The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse is one of the leading independent research bodies in the United States, offering resources and support to aid those struggling with addiction. This organization, as well as the American Medical Association and the American Society of Addiction Medicine, categorizes addiction as a disease due to the role of behavioral choices, genetic factors, and environmental influences in its development.

Further, addiction involves changes in both the body and the brain, creating physical and mental layers of dependency that can worsen and even prove fatal over time.

Some people argue with the premise of addiction as a disease due to the element of choice. Since getting started requires engaging in an activity that is known to be addictive, like drinking heavily or trying drugs, addiction cannot appear spontaneously like many other diseases do.

However, this is not sound logic. Numerous illnesses and life-threatening conditions, like lung cancer, skin cancer, and diabetes are directly related to an individual’s choices, like choosing to smoke or choosing to sit outside in the sun without sunscreen, but these issues are certainly not debatable as diseases.

Addiction may be the result of choices, but this does not make it any less of a credible illness deserving of treatment.

Illegal and Legal Substances to Abuse That Could Lead to an Addiction

Addiction appears in many forms. When many people think of addiction, it’s common to refer to the more popular substances like alcohol, heroin, or cocaine, but addictive behavior can involve a wide range of different substances and activities.

In fact, nearly every pleasurable activity, from eating to shopping, has the ability to trigger an addiction.

Illicit substances do indeed make up many cases of addiction. Approximately 24 million Americans are addicted to drugs or alcohol, and, in some areas, this figure is only on the rise.

The heroin epidemic sweeping the United States is evidence of this; death from heroin overdose is up 45 percent since 2007. However, drugs are not the only substances to which individuals can be addicted.

Non-illegal substances can be highly addictive as well, creating problems for millions teens and adults across the country. Approximately 3 percent of those who have tried gambling are addicted.

Between 3 percent and 6 percent of adults struggle with sex addiction, nearly 6 percent of adults are addicted to shopping, and 2.8 percent of Americans suffer with Binge Eating Disorder.

It is also possible to develop obsessions with recreational activities, like video games or exercise.

For those with an addictive personality or who use outside factors to cope with stress, addiction is always a possibility for any fun or exciting hobby.

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The Addicted Brain

The power of addiction is primarily related to its effects on the body. Addiction is not just psychological; addictive substances can actually change the way your brain functions.

The brain controls human activities, using a series of signals to satisfy the body’s basal needs. For example, a dangerous situation, like a hot stove, sends pain signals to deter further contact, while fulfilling basic needs, like eating and sleeping, stimulates pleasurable sensations. Over time, these signals grow to affect all areas of life, using past behaviors to determine future motivations. This mechanism can cause changes in how the body processes stimulation, choosing to put great emphasis on substances or activities that provide above average levels of pleasure.

In time, this pattern of pleasurable signals can create a dependency on these activities, resulting in the initial stages of an addiction. When this occurs, individuals must have access to these substances to feel normal, triggering intense desires and cravings that are extremely hard to overcome.

Many substances take this concept one step further and actually change the way the brain releases and uses neurotransmitters like GABA and dopamine. Excessive drug and heavy alcohol abuse can negatively affect the structure of the brain, leading to a physical addiction that may require medication to reverse or mitigate.

Co-Occurring Disorders and Substance Abuse Treatment

Many individuals struggling with substance abuse are also afflicted with other conditions, including co-occurring disorders. Also known as dual diagnosis, co-occurring disorders refer to other mental health issues that can contribute to substance abuse.

The correlations are strong indeed, with nearly 8 million Americans facing both mental health challenges and addiction. The presence of one or more mental disorder can greatly complicate treatment for addiction, especially when there is no clear way to tell which condition predates the other. In some cases, addiction leads to anxiety or depression, while in others, these kinds of conditions result in abusive behavior that ends in addiction.

According to the Substance Health and Mental Health Services Administration, those with mental disorders are significantly more likely to develop an addiction. Numerous disorders can co-occur with addiction, including:

Treating a dual diagnosis involves addressing the symptoms of mental illness as well as the root causes of addiction, helping to target dependency at the source. While not easy, a counselor trained in co-occurring disorders can provide great relief for those in need, working with both conditions simultaneously to see an improvement in overall health.

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Only 14% of individuals with a co-occurring disorder receive treatment addressing both their substance abuse and mental health issues.

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The Cycle of Addiction: 4 Main Stages

Addiction, despite its complexities and varying forms, can be broken down into four simple stages: experimental, recreational, early dependency, and full dependency.

  1. The Experimental Stage of Addiction
    The experimental stage refers to the initial experimentation that precludes an addiction. For alcoholics, for example, this stage encompasses one’s first few drinks. In this stage, users do not believe they will continue using and are simply sampling substances for fun, out of curiosity, or even due to boredom.
  2. The Recreational Stage of Addiction
    In this stage, individuals begin using substances recreationally. They may get high with friends or drink at parties, but do not consider themselves to be addicts. Early on, users will be able to go days or weeks without further use, but may be subject to an increasing tolerance as time goes on.
  3. The Early Dependency Stage of Addiction
    In the early dependency stage, users begin to show initial signs of addiction, including using on a daily basis, letting job performance slide due to increased use, or using alone. Without immediate help, those who make it to this stage will not be able to go on for much longer before a full-blown addiction sets in.
  4. The Full Dependency Stage of Addiction
    Those who make it to the final stage are considered fully dependent on substances to keep going on a day to day basis. Behavior is frequently self-destructive, leading to consequences like damaged relationships, job loss, and academic failures. If left untreated, addicts will be at high risk for depression, accidental or intentional self-injury, and death from overdose.

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Empower Yourself with Knowledge from Reputable Sources About Drug & Alcohol Addictions

ABTRS believes in the importance of using reputable sources when communicating with those interested in learning about addiction treatment. We have crafted all our information, treatment modalities, statistics, and practices on reliable resources that are supported by data and scientific methodology. We utilize information that is impartial, not funded by organizations that could benefit from certain outcomes, and proven or tested to be effective for substance abuse treatment and aftercare.

Below are the sources used to construct the content on our website and all written material from ABTRS. We pride ourselves on offering anyone who is seeking treatment for themselves or a loved one with knowledge from reputable sources that are up-to-date and relevant.

Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. What Is Substance Abuse Treatment? A Booklet for Families. HHS Publication No. (SMA) 14-4126. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2004.

NIDA. (2018, January 17). Principles of Drug Addiction Treatment: A Research-Based Guide (Third Edition). Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/principles-drug-addiction-treatment-research-based-guide-third-edition on 2019, February 18

NIDA. (2018, July 20). Drugs, Brains, and Behavior: The Science of Addiction. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugs-brains-behavior-science-addiction on 2019, February 18

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