Beginning with no understanding of addiction, scientists have understood more and more about it over time. In the early 20th century, some doctors believed that people with addictions were morally weak and needed to learn self-control—they lacked the willpower required for abstinence from drugs or alcohol. These days, most people think about addiction as a brain disease instead of something caused by poor character.
However, there’s a lot that is still unknown about addiction. We don’t know exactly how it happens, why we become addicted to certain substances or experiences, and what makes some people vulnerable while others are not.
Is Addiction a Disease or Moral Failing?
Addiction seems to be considered a moral failing much more often than other brain diseases like schizophrenia. This can lead to feelings of shame and guilt, making it more difficult for an addict to seek help. In fact, one study found that people who believed addiction was a moral failing were less likely to seek treatment. Another study found that 10% of individuals with addiction didn’t seek treatment out of fear that it might cause neighbors and their community to have a negative option, and 8% feared it might have a negative effect on their job.
Addiction is a Treatable Disease
The reality is that substance abuse is under-identified and undertreated. Today, the American Medical Association and the American Society of Addiction Medicine categorize addiction as a disease.
Addiction combines behavioral, psychological, environmental, and biological factors like other chronic diseases. Physical addiction results from changes in the chemicals and functions of the brain due to the continued use of drugs or alcohol.
Addiction is a complex issue. Some people use drugs because they feel they need them to cope with stress in their lives or traumatic events. Others use drugs because they influence them in their social circles.
Addiction affects the brain by causing dopamine levels to rise too high for too long; this increases activity in your brain’s reward center, which leads you to want more drugs because your body wants more dopamine stimulation and all other manners of compulsive behaviors.
In addition, Addiction is hereditary; if one parent is an addict, there’s a 60% chance their child will also become an addict (even if it’s not necessarily an addiction to chemical substances).
The Reality of Willpower
To say addiction is merely a moral failing condition means to ignore the realities of addiction. While the initial decision to use substances is based on a person’s conscious choice, it doesn’t stay that way. Factors such as a family history of addiction, trauma, and untreated mental health disorders such as anxiety or depression make some people more susceptible to addiction.
Furthermore, once someone starts using substances – whether through a prescription or for recreational purposes – the brain’s chemical changes impair an individual’s ability to maintain willpower. One of the symptoms of addiction is a loss of control over substance use.
People with addiction have a challenging time avoiding substances altogether. Chemically, their body needs substances to function correctly. Otherwise, they experience withdrawal symptoms that can be detrimental physically and mentally.
For example, caffeine, a stimulant drug – people who regularly consume caffeine experience similar brain changes as amphetamines. Over time, the brain tricks the body into believing it needs caffeine to function correctly. Otherwise, you’ll experience headaches, fatigue, decreased energy, depressed mood, irritability, and foggy thoughts.
Is Addiction a Chronic Disease?
Most chronic diseases are long-lasting and have no cure. Addiction is a chronic disorder. For most people, addiction is a progressive, relapsing disease that requires intensive treatment and continuous monitoring to stay managed.
Thankfully, like for other chronic diseases, addiction is manageable. A combination of detox, long-term therapy, group support, and medication can successfully treat substance abuse and help people maintain long-lasting sobriety.
Finding Help for Addiction
If you or someone you know is dealing with addiction, don’t hesitate to seek help. The sooner you start treatment and find support, the greater the chances of achieving sobriety and preventing an overdose. Addiction is a chronic disease that has nothing to do with moral failing and can be effectively treated through behavioral therapies and support.