When someone has a drug addiction, their life revolves around their ability to get and use drugs. Their addiction can lead them to make reckless and harmful choices. Sometimes these choices hurt their family and friends as well as themselves. They don’t want to cause harm, but they can’t stop.

Many people try a drug at some point in their life. So why does drug addiction happen to some people and not others? How much choice does the person have, or is addiction more like a chronic disease?

There is an ongoing debate regarding whether addiction should be considered a chronic disease or a result of voluntary choice. While people choose to try a drug, they aren’t trying to become addicted. How much control do they have once they have a severe substance use disorder?

Multiple factors influence whether a person becomes addicted, such as genetics, environment, social factors, and age when the drug use started. Additionally, addiction involves real changes to a person’s brain that makes it challenging to stop even when they want to quit.

Fortunately, drug addiction can be treated with help. The free Rehab Helpline for Drugs and Alcohol at  (877) 467-4825 can connect you with a rehabilitation admissions expert to help you learn more about potential treatment options for you or your loved one.

What Is Addiction?

Addiction is a severe, chronic substance use disorder. It negatively impacts multiple aspects of a person’s life, such as their health, social relationships, work, and emotional functioning. A person with a drug addiction can’t control their use of the substance. They will continue to seek and use the drug despite serious negative consequences.

Is Addiction a Chronic Disease?

Most medical associations and groups, including the American Medical Association and the National Institute on Drug Abuse, consider and treat drug addiction as a disease. The disease model of addiction highlights the role of genetic, behavioral, environmental, and psychological factors that can contribute to the disorder. This viewpoint draws support from similarities between addiction and other chronic diseases, like diabetes and heart disease. Three similarities include:

1. Genetic factors affect a person’s risk of addiction.

Like other chronic diseases, genetics can impact a person’s risk of developing the illness. Research suggests that genetic factors are linked to about 50 percent of a person’s risk of addiction. However, having genetic risk factors alone does not mean a person will develop a drug addiction.

2. Drug addiction will get worse if left untreated.

If a person with a severe substance use disorder doesn’t receive treatment, the addiction will worsen, just like other chronic diseases. Over time, the addiction can result in severe, life-threatening consequences and lead to other mental health and physical disorders.

3. Addiction causes changes in the brain.

Extensive research shows that substance misuse changes the brain’s functioning. Drug addiction can cause changes in the reward circuits of the brain, which controls motivation and pleasure.

The brain’s reward circuit allows people to experience pleasure from natural rewards, like enjoying a wonderful meal or finishing a favorite book. When a rewarding event happens, dopamine is released to encourage the event to happen again.

Drugs trigger large amounts of neurotransmitters, like dopamine, at once. This large influx of dopamine tells the brain’s reward circuit that this experience needs to happen again. As the drug use is repeated, the brain learns to value this experience more than other natural rewards that used to bring joy. The brain also learns to associate using the drug with certain people and places, which is why environmental and physical cues can trigger people to use again even after they’ve quit for months.

With continued use, the brain gets used to receiving large amounts of dopamine. The person then needs to consume increasingly more of the drug to get the same effect. Even after a person stops their substance use, the changes in their brain may remain.

Concerns about a disease model of addiction

Not everyone believes that drug addiction should be considered a chronic disease. The two arguments against a disease model include:

  • Minimizes the role of choice, responsibility, and voluntary control.
  • Some individuals who use substances can get better without treatment.

Is Addiction a Choice?

The belief that addiction is a choice predates the disease model of addiction. Many believe the addiction is caused solely by the person’s choice to use the substance.

It’s critical to keep in mind that addiction is a severe substance use disorder. A person does make the choice initially to use a drug. However, they typically aren’t addicted during the early stages of use. Once they become addicted, the brain changes make it harder for them to choose to stop using the drug.

Some people use drugs occasionally can stop without help,  but it’s much harder after addiction. Typically, people with a severe substance use disorder will need professional help and support. Some people with an addiction have been able to stop on their own, often in response to a significant event (such as incarceration or severe injury).

Focusing on addiction as a choice without considering elements a person can’t control, such as risk factors, can lead to blaming, shaming, or stigmatizing the person. The opinion that it strikes people who are weak in character, makes it harder for addicts to seek help and treatment. It also can result in less compassion towards them, further alienating them from seeking help.

Getting Help with Drug Addiction Is Critical

No one tries to become addicted to drugs. Unfortunately, there isn’t one single factor that can predict whether a person will become addicted. However, research has found risk factors that increase the chance of addiction. Additionally, there is strong evidence that substances cause changes in the brain, which lends support to the disease model of addiction.

Whether you believe addiction is a choice or a disease, the good news is that recovery is possible with help. Professional treatment and ongoing support can help addicts through the process of getting off drugs and learning how to embrace a life of clean living.

For information on treatment options for yourself or a loved one, call the free Rehab Helpline for Drugs and Alcohol at (877) 467-4825. Speak with a rehabilitation expert. Ask how insurance can cover costs for luxury facilities in beautiful settings. They want you to succeed and start a new life for you and your family.


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