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Understanding Addiction as a Disease

Honestly, who in their right mind would ever choose to become an addict? To live a life of pain and misery is certainly not on anyone’s bucket list. Unfortunately, many look at individuals who struggle with drug or alcohol addiction with a “You made that bed, now lie in it” attitude. People may consider the resultant consequences of addiction as something the person willingly committed to, a risk they took with that first dose or drink.

Drug or alcohol addiction may not look like a disease, but it is. Addiction’s classification as a disease speaks volumes. Addiction is a chronic and relapsing disease of the brain, according to the American Medical Association, the American Society of Addiction Medicine, and the American Psychiatric Association. While this may be a difficult concept for many to grasp, science has born this out. As brain mapping and neural technologies continue to advance, evidence continues to support the belief that addiction is, indeed, a brain disease. Just as lifestyle choices can contribute to diseases such as skin cancer, diabetes, or heart disease, the same could be said about the origins of an addiction.

Grasping Addiction as a Disease

Most, if not all, human adults are provided the daily opportunity to choose wisely when considering various lifestyle options. In our humanness, we may choose the juicy steak more often that a leafy green salad. We may opt for spending time outdoors without consistently using sunscreen. We may indulge in sweets too often when we know we should avoid sugar.  Some individuals consistently making poor lifestyle choices may end up with a serious disease, while others, exercising the same poor choices, dodge illness altogether.  The genetic predisposition to acquiring a disease based on poor lifestyle choices is no different with substance misuse.  Many people flagrantly abuse drugs and alcohol and do not end up with a chemical dependency, where those with the genetic predisposition often do.

Genetics can influence in a significant way the way an individual’s brain will respond to the introduction of alcohol or a drug. It can be tricky to tell who has the predisposition for acquiring an addiction. Often, by the time it becomes clear that there is a problem it is already too late. Did that college freshman choose to become a heroin addict when he partied with his friends on the weekends? Doubtful.

How Addiction Happens

When addiction rewires the brain in response to the drug’s impact on the reward center, such as the flood of dopamine that results from opioid use, the individual becomes, in essence, a prisoner. In an attempt to relive the initial rush or buzz, continued use of the substance only leads to increased tolerance of it, leading to higher and more frequent dosing. As addiction takes hold, any attempt to stop using the substance results in highly unpleasant withdrawal symptoms. At some point in the continuum of chemical dependency, free will is shut down entirely.

Even in the face of mounting negative consequences—loss of a job, a spouse, the trust of family, and health—the addict finds him or herself powerless over the constant craving. The brain demands the next use, and if it is not forthcoming the body becomes violently ill in response. The disease of addiction has thus resulted from lifestyle choices. There are multiple factors involved in how an addiction develops, and genetics is only one piece of the puzzle.

Treating Addiction:  Mind, Body, and Spirit

Treating addiction looks very different from how diabetes, skin cancer, or heart disease is treated. Each malady requires its own unique treatment plan, and addiction is no different. The disease of addiction isn’t managed with Lipitor or chemotherapy. For addiction, a multi-pronged approach that treats the whole person—mind, body, and spirit—is an appropriate therapeutic intervention for this potentially life-threatening disease.

The factors that lie at the heart of addiction must be examined, parsed, and counseled, so individual and group therapy is an essential treatment element.  Deep-seated issues such as past trauma, emotional pain, loneliness, a lack of direction in life, and marriage or family discord may have fueled the substance dependency. Self-medicating emotional pain with alcohol or drugs is common. Without addressing these issues during treatment, recovery stands less of a chance.

The mistake that many people struggling with addiction make is thinking they can simply detox and walk away from the problem. This is a strategy that guarantees a 100% failure rate.  Addiction is a highly complex disease and, thus, requires ongoing therapy, peer support, and systemic lifestyle changes to achieve a sustained recovery. Compassion towards those suffering from the disease of addiction will hopefully someday equal that felt toward people suffering from any other chronic, debilitating disease.

Cornerstone Healing Center approaches addiction treatment holistically. With a hybrid treatment approach blending evidence-based treatment modalities, 12-step programming, and experiential therapeutic activities, Cornerstone Healing Center addresses the whole person.  For more information about this progressive approach to addiction treatment, please contact Scottsdale Cornerstone Healing Center today at (800) 480-1781.

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