Whether you suspect that you have a substance use disorder or you know someone who does, addiction usually brings out complicated feelings. On the one hand, there’s a temptation to blame people with addictions for making poor choices. But on the other hand, there’s a lot of debate about the nature of addiction, and it leads many people to ask the question: Is addiction a disease?
To answer that question, we’re going to examine the physical and mental aspects of addiction. And it’s our hope that this information will empower you to better navigate your relationships and decision-making, and, if necessary, to seek addiction treatment.
Is Addiction a Disease?
Most people who start using drugs or alcohol do so with some control over their use of the drug. They might drink occasionally, or use drugs recreationally with friends. But in any case, very few people become addicted the first time they use an addictive substance.
At some point, though, it stops being something they like to do and it becomes something they need to do. That’s partially because addictive drugs release dopamine in the brain. This elicits an extreme pleasure reaction that encourages users to keep taking the drug.
In addition, dopamine plays a role in learning and memory, making people even more likely to develop an addiction with prolonged use. This is especially true if it takes more and more of the drug to experience feelings of pleasure.
Over time, an addiction forms as taking the drug stops being a conscious choice. To feel pleasant emotions, the brain comes to need the dopamine released by drinking or drug use. Moreover, the body can become physically addicted, making it hard or impossible for it to function without more of the addictive substance. The process of using over and over again creates a conditioned response to seek the drug when certain mental, emotional, and environmental cues are present, further bringing about changes in the brain.
Similar to a mental illness, addiction changes the way that the brain functions. For this reason, the answer to “Is addiction a disease?” is a resounding yes. It may begin with a choice, but what addiction does to a person can only be understood as a serious disease that requires treatment.
How Brain Changes Affect Behavior
It’s important to understand that physical changes take place in the brain as a result of addiction, as it makes it easier to understand that it truly is an disease, but it’s also important to understand that other changes are occurring as well. Substance use disorders have the potential to change your personality, and they can change your behavior, which can make addiction treatment even more challenging.
At first, the changes may seem positive. For example, alcohol can make you more friendly and open to meeting new people, while a party drug, like MDMA, can help you find the energy to stay up all night. However, as you continue to take drugs or alcohol, you and others may start to notice less positive changes in behavior. You may become more moody, more angry, and less reliable. Many people who struggle with an addiction find it difficult to maintain relationships. In addition, they may find it difficult to arrive to work on time and focus while there.
The Link Between Mental Illness and Addiction
Addiction’s link to disease is strengthened by the fact that mental illness and substance abuse often go hand-in-hand, and more people are suffering from both substance use disorders and mental illness than ever before. Substance use disorders and mental illnesses have been on the rise over the last few years. In addition, multiple national surveys found that half of those with a mental illness also experience some kind of substance use disorder throughout their lives.
Some may turn to drugs or alcohol to cope with an existing mental illness. For example, it isn’t uncommon for alcohol and mental illness to go hand-in-hand when you experience anxiety or depression and use alcohol to cope.
The relationship between mental health and addiction is further complicated by the fact that you can also develop a mental illness as a result of drug use, and using drugs can worsen the mental illness you already have. You might develop delirium or psychosis, while mental illnesses like depression and anxiety can develop as relationship, job, and other life changes are negatively affected by your addiction.
Getting Help with a Dual Diagnosis Program
Because mental illness and addiction often occur together, it’s extremely important to seek mental health and drug abuse treatment at the same time. Without substance abuse treatment that coincides with mental health treatment, you are likely to continue experiencing problems on and off throughout your life.
Baton Rouge Behavioral Hospital is a leader in dual diagnosis programs that treat mental health issues in conjunction with addiction issues. We fully and thoroughly understand that addiction is a disease, and it’s one that can affect nearly every area of your life, including your mental health. We offer treatment modalities that include neuro-psychological testing, therapy, and family education, as well as 12-step programs and relapse prevention.
Baton Rouge Behavioral Hospital is your first and last stop to answering, “Is addiction a disease?” Call 225-300-8470 or fill out our online form for more information on addictions, mental health, and how to get help.