The issue of whether or not addiction is a disease has been debated for decades. It seems as if researchers made the most headway in April 2011 when extensive studies led to the changing definition of addiction by the American Society of Addiction Medicine. From this point forward, most medical experts and behavioral specialists agree that addiction is indeed a disease, and we have no reason to challenge this perception. The ASAM now classifies addiction as a chronic brain disorder instead of a behavioral problem.
At The River Source, we too believe that addiction is a disease. We know that some of our families have insisted that is was simply their loved one’s choice to start with drugs, but we feel that there are certain triggers that are set off when trying drugs or alcohol, thus making the person more vulnerable to addiction. If we can treat these underlying factors and be sensitive to the genetic makeup of each person, we can best treat them for their addiction by giving attention to their whole self – mind, body, and spirit. This is the groundwork for the treatment The River Source offers to all patients.
What Makes Addiction A Disease?
Addiction is believed to be a disease because it meets the same requirements as other diseases and disorders and can be fatal. Below are these characteristics:
Addiction is chronic. Without treatment, the addict will not recover.
The symptoms of addiction are progressive. Without intervention, they will lead to death in the addict.
Addiction has a high rate of relapse, just as other diseases do.
Addiction is treatable.
Addiction can be diagnosed based on a number of symptoms.
Addiction has a genetic predisposition in individuals.
How Addiction Works
In addition to the characteristics of addiction, this brain disease also follows a specific path, again supporting the idea that addiction is, in fact, a chronic brain disorder. Drugs enter our system and cause the brain to release high levels of dopamine. This level of dopamine can be two to ten times the normal amount of dopamine in our brains, giving addicts their “high” or “rush”. As the drug starts to wear off, the brain struggles to regain its normal levels of dopamine. This is where the withdrawal symptoms come from, and these symptoms can show themselves in a variety of ways, such as with symptoms of depression, irritability or physical symptoms.
As the addict continues using the drugs, the brain will fail to produce dopamine at all, and this will lead to further withdrawal symptoms and physical dependency on the drug. This is what makes it so difficult to stop using the drug, as the body and brain literally depend on it. This need for “survival” takes precedence, and this is why addicts will do anything – lie, steal, cheat or engage in illegal activities – just to get more of their drug. At this point, the drug is in control of the body, not the person.
Underlying Factors: Genetics, Poor Coping Skills, and Trauma
There’s more to the disease model of addiction than just how the drugs work on the brain. There are some people who experiment with drugs and never become chronic abusers. There are some people who drink heavily or use drugs on occasion without these substances taking a hold on their body. So what makes a drug user a drug abuser?
The River Source agrees that there are underlying factors that make certain people susceptible to addiction. First is the genetic makeup of the individual. Consider that the children of addicts are eight times more likely to develop an addiction to drugs or alcohol. While everyone runs the risk of developing an addiction, those who have a genetic predisposition are at a higher risk. While the details surrounding this are still not known, it’s believed that those with a genetic predisposition have pleasure centers that are more triggered by drugs, which means they crave the drug from the very beginning.
Second, coping skills play a huge role in a person’s likelihood of having an addiction. Some people lack effective coping skills, and as stress builds into the teenage and young adult years, it makes these individuals more likely to abuse drugs. Poor coping skills also work hand-in-hand with the genetic predisposition: If the person tries drugs and becomes hooked early on, they can’t stop using because they don’t know how else to deal with life.
Our community also believes that certain triggers can affect addiction, such as stress, trauma, abuse or lack of self-confidence. When speaking with our patients, we learn that many experienced negative events throughout their childhood or teenage years, prompting them to experiment with drugs. If these same individuals had a family history of addiction as well as poor coping skills, it was very likely that their dependency would form quickly.
The good news is that just because you or a loved one has a family history of drug abuse or poor coping skills doesn’t mean addiction is your destiny. The River Source is a new start for addicts, and our treatment is offered in a safe, comfortable and nurturing environment so that a new beginning can be created.
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