What is The Disease Model of Addiction?

Unfortunately, many people continue to view addiction as a choice and a lack of morals, rather than a chronic disease. This idea comes from a stigma related to addiction, where society viewed addicts and alcoholics as inherently “bad” people. While research and science have proved these stigmas untrue, individuals still stigmatize addiction and alcoholism alike. Because of this stigma, the cunning psychological and painful physical dependence associated with addiction are ignored.

With advances in modern technology and science, we are able to understand more about addiction than ever before. While excessive and frequent substance abuse alters the brain over time, certain signs and symptoms may be pre-existing in the brain of an addict. Almost like diseases such as diabetes, addiction is caused by a combination of behavioral, environmental, and biological factors. Scientists and researchers have put together something known as the disease model of addiction, a complete guide to better understand the science behind what causes addiction, what the disease of addiction is, and much more.

How Addiction is Classified as a Disease

According to the disease model of addiction, chemical dependency is an illness that develops over time. Individuals who are already genetically predisposed to addiction will go through stages of this disease. We know that substance abuse does cause chemical changes in our brain, however, there are aspects of an individual’s brain chemistry and genetic makeup that signal the possibility of the development of addiction.

Many people deny addiction’s status as a disease by claiming that because natural pleasures aren’t as commonly addictive, drug and alcohol addiction must be a flaw in morality and willpower. However, the National Institute of Drug and Alcohol Abuse (NIDA) has explained,

“For the brain, the difference between normal rewards and drug rewards can be described as the difference between someone whispering into your ear and someone shouting into a microphone. Just as we turn down the volume on a radio that is too loud, the brain adjusts to the overwhelming surges in dopamine (and other neurotransmitters) by producing less dopamine or by reducing the number of receptors that can receive signals. As a result, dopamine’s impact on the reward circuit of the brain of someone who abuses drugs can become abnormally low, and that person’s ability to experience any pleasure is reduced.”

Additionally, the disease model of addiction highlights the fact that genetics play a role in the development of substance abuse. In fact, heritability is considered to account for about 50% of an individual’s risk of developing addictive tendencies. In other words, this concept of addiction relies heavily on the role of genetics and the systematic alterations to our physiology. However, this does not discount one’s environment being a factor in the development of this disease.

Environmental Factors of Addiction

Genetic predisposition cannot entirely account for the development of addiction. According to the disease model of addiction, environmental factors such as peer pressure or childhood exposure to addiction often lead an individual to their first drink or drug. While some individuals counter this idea of addiction being a disease by claiming addiction begins as a choice, the disease model counteracts this claim. This model incorporates an individual’s choice to use drugs or alcohol as a direct result of their environment and genetic predisposition.

For example, a child living in a household with parents who abuse substances would be more likely to try using drugs or alcohol, as their parents did. Also, an individual with PTSD from trauma or a person suffering from a co-occurring disorder may attempt to cope by utilizing drugs and alcohol. Self-medication certainly plays a role in the development of addiction, as these individuals are using substances because they feel an overwhelming need to experience a surge of dopamine.

To continue, physical ailments impact the disease model in the same fashion. Individuals may begin to use opioids after experiencing a car accident, for example, eventually leading to dependence, tolerance, and addiction. While the need to cope or escape has played no role in the development of addiction in this case, the individual still experiences the same flood of dopamine. Therefore, despite a significant difference in environmental factors, the onset of the disease of addiction remains unchanged.

Why is Accepting Addiction as a Disease Important?

Unfortunately, the physical and mental aspects of addiction make it extremely difficult for addicts to get sober on their own. Once an individual’s brain chemistry has been altered to display addictive qualities, they will remain that way for life. While addiction is a permanent and progressive disease, treatment is possible through detox, rehabilitation treatment, and continuous aftercare. Because addiction is characterized by distinguishing factors for development, signs, and symptoms that can be treated, it is rightfully classified as a disease.

By viewing addiction as a disease rather than a choice, the stigma that surrounds addiction will come to an end. Addicts and alcoholics will be seen as individuals with a chronic illness, rather than a morally-inept criminal. This allows addicts to be less ashamed of their disease, causing them to feel more comfortable when asking for help. In other words, addicts and alcoholics will feel more hopeful about their recovery, instead of being ashamed. This may result in decreasing numbers of addiction-related deaths or illnesses, as more addicts and alcoholics would seek treatment.

The Disease Model of Addiction Applied in Treatment

If you or a loved one are in need of addiction treatment, it is important to find a facility that understands the disease model. For example, the disease model provides insight into how addiction affects one’s mental and physical health. This allows therapists and healthcare specialists to properly address any additional issues patients may face as a result of their addiction.

At CWC Recovery, we are educated on the causes, effects, and treatment of addiction. We understand what it’s like to deal with the struggles of substance abuse, mental health conditions, and trauma. As a result, we are better able to support and treat our patients. If you would like to recover from addiction and any other related issues, contact us today to get started.