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 The Disease Concept of Addiction

The Disease Concept of Addiction

There are many kinds of addiction that fall into two main categories: substance addictions (substance use disorder) and behavioral addictions (such as gambling or internet use). Addiction of any kind can be devasting to both the person addicted and the people closest to them.

This article will explore what addiction is, the types of addiction, and why addiction is a disease that needs treatment.

What is Addiction?

Addiction is a harmful condition in which the body develops a need to continue using a substance or participating in a behavior despite negative consequences.1 A person may develop an addiction to drugs, alcohol, gambling, having sex, using the internet, or a myriad of other potentially harmful behaviors.2

Just like other diseases, addiction changes the way a particular body part functions.1(what is drug addiction) With addiction, the brain is rewired in a way that has harmful effects on a person’s ability to function normally.1

At the same time, it is usually both preventable and treatable if a person takes the right steps along the way.1

So, addiction is caused by a combination of personal choices, environment, and genetic predisposition.1

Is Addiction Their Fault?

If you or a loved one have developed an addiction, it is not completely the “fault” of the person addicted.1 Like any disease, several factors contribute to the development of the disease of addiction. For example, of two people who both smoke the same amount of marijuana daily, only one may develop an addiction.

It may have been the initial decision of each person to smoke the amount and frequency that they did, but neither could control whether or not an addiction developed.1 There are environmental and genetic factors associated with addiction.

Risk factors:1

  • Aggressive childhood behavior
  • Minimal supervision by parents
  • Low level of peer refusal skills
  • Experimenting with drugs
  • Access to drugs at school
  • Impoverished community
  • Family history of addiction
  • Genetic changes
  • Parents or older siblings who misuse drugs or alcohol
  • Parents or older siblings who break the law
  • Early age of first exposure to drugs or alcohol
  • Smoking or injecting drugs
  • Prolonged or chronic substance use

Protective factors:1

  • Strong self-efficacy
  • Parental support and involvement
  • Positive relationships
  • Good school performance
  • Anti-drug policies at school
  • Access to neighborhood resources
  • Avoiding exposure

Addiction: A Brain Disease

Because addiction affects numerous circuits in the brain, it is considered a brain disease by professionals.3 Over time, and particularly in the developing brain, addiction can have a significantly dangerous effect on the areas dedicated to rewards, motivation, learning, memory, and the ability to control behaviors.3

Adolescents with substance use disorders or behavioral addictions have an increased risk for long-term consequences.1 As their brains are in the process of developing, damage from addiction at an early age can make future healing more difficult.1

Most behaviors that cause addiction have some effect on the brain’s reward system.1 Continued drug use is driven by the pleasure or reward that a person experiences from the drug’s effects.4(abstract) Depending on what effect a person desires, different substances may be more attractive than others.

The ability to categorize experiences as positive or negative is an adaptation necessary for survival in all living beings.4 The human brain naturally sends “reward” signals for positive experiences, such as eating or engaging in reproduction, and negative signals for pain or other threats.4

Many substances overload the brain’s natural reward systems, so the brain is flooded with positive signals.4 Repetitively engaging in stimulating behaviors, such as binge eating, gambling, or compulsive sex, can accomplish the same thing.2 The brain then rewires itself to continue seeking the cause of such a great reward.1

Addiction vs. Dependence

Addiction develops on a spectrum, and physical dependence can occur without developing an addiction.3 Physical dependence on a substance can occur even with prescription drugs that are chronically used as they are intended.3 It is the result of the body’s adapting to having a certain level of drug within it.3

So over time, a person needs a higher dose to have the same intended effect and may also experience negative (withdrawal) symptoms if they do not take the drug.3 But addiction is a psychological dependence on a substance or behavior.3 It is characterized by a compulsive behavior (including substance use) that a person engages in despite harmful consequences.3

Addiction Treatment and Recovery

If you or a loved one are ready to get help for an addiction, there are many ways to get started on the road to recovery. Virtue Recovery Center is available in multiple locations across the country to assist you in your healing.

Depending on the severity of your addiction and the rest of your story, you may benefit from some of the following interventions offered there.

  • Medical detoxification is supervised and medically assisted detox from a substance. Many substances have extremely uncomfortable or life-threatening withdrawal symptoms. Enrolling in supervised detox can keep you safe and help minimize symptoms to help you overcome physical dependence.3
  • Inpatient programs are on a level of treatment that offers 24/7 supervision and attention to your medical needs. They are usually accomplished in a hospital or residential setting but always require a stay away from home.3
  • Outpatient programs vary in intensity but range from a few days per month to several days and hours of therapy per week.3
  • Behavioral therapy is an important part of healing and is done throughout all addiction treatment programs. While the process of detox heals your physical dependence, behavioral therapies heal your psychological dependence on a substance or behavior.3

The type, intensity, and duration of a treatment plan will depend on your needs. Alongside the treatment aspects listed, there are many more that can help you become addiction-free. Contact Virtue Recovery Center today for all your addiction treatment needs.

As a well-staffed and accredited facility, they can help determine if your insurance is compatible, answer any questions you may have about rehab, and assist with enrollment.


  1. NIDA. (2020, July 13). Drugs, brains, and behavior: the science of addiction drug misuse and addiction.
  2. Alavi, S. S., Ferdosi, M., Jannatifard, F., Eslami, M., Alaghemandan, H. , & Setare, M. (2012, April). Behavioral addiction versus substance addiction: correspondence of psychiatric and psychological views. International Journal of Preventative Medicine.
  3. NIDA. (2014). Principles of drug addiction treatment: a research-based guide (third edition).
  4. Volkow, N. D., Michaelides, M., & Baler, R. (2019, September 11). The neuroscience of drug reward and addiction. Physiological Reviews.

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