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Is Addiction a Disease?

Black and white image of young man wearing a hoodie sitting on a guard railWhat’s addiction? Seems like everyone has an opinion about it these days. There are a lot of people who believe that it’s a disease and then there are those who strongly disagree.

So what’s causing all these conflicting arguments? It really comes down to two schools of thought on the matter.

So what does The American National Institute On Drug Abuse (NIDA) have to say about it?

According to the NIDA, addiction is a chronic relapsing brain disease. The definition is a marriage between neuroscience and medicine. Extensive research on the subject has found that the brain is physically changed as a result of addiction.

If addiction goes untreated, the consequences often include mental health disorders and physical ailments that require urgent medical attention. If ignored, addiction can become disabling and even life threatening.

This definition has been largely accepted across the board from rehab facilities to policy makers. It’s what the whole addiction treatment industry is built on. But is this definition correct?

What’s the Counter Argument?

A lot of people these days are starting to view addiction as something that is learned. So the belief here is that whatever patterns that have been learned can be unlearned.

If you read our post about the agony of a relapse, you’ll know that this type of thinking can be counteractive to sobriety. But it’s way more complicated than that as addiction is multidimensional and can’t be perceived in simple black and white terms.

Any neuroscientist who has researched addiction will tell you that they’ve witnessed ongoing organ plasticity with repeated experiences and strong emotions. It’s a similar phenomenon when you develop a gambling addiction, fall in love, or get hooked on the Internet.

Further, addiction also has some roots in one’s self-concept that’s often influenced by difficult childhood experiences that become crystallized with experience. But the debate rages on and people tend to come back to the argument that addiction is the result of a personal choice.

While the first few times may have been the result of personal choice, once the brain has been changed by their addiction, most experts believe that the individual loses control of their behavior. Further, choices can’t determine whether something is a disease.

Common illnesses like diabetes, heart disease, and some types of cancer are all attributed to lack of exercise, bad diet, and exposure to the sun. So you can say the disease is what happens to your body as a result of a combination of lifestyle choices.

Sure it gets Better with Treatment

Of course, some people get better with treatment and people with mild substance use disorders may even recover with little to no treatment. At the same time, you also hear about severe alcoholics and addicts stopping cold turkey. For others, 12-step programs like the AA and self-help groups work.

We can argue these points endlessly, but at the end of the day, the best answer will be the one that generates the least amount of harm with the most benefits.

Seeking help is always a good option regardless of whether you think it’s a disease or not. Kicking alcohol or substance abuse problems is never going to easy.

So the best approach to move forward may be to acknowledge that addiction is a lot like a disease in some ways and totally unlike it in other ways. The labels don’t matter, but overcoming it is most important.