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Is addiction a disease?

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Addiction is also referred to as substance use disorder. It is characterized by the habitual consumption of substances such as alcohol, illicit, prescription, or over-the-counter drugs.

Defining Substance Addiction

Major health experts agree that though highly treatable, addiction is considered a disease. The medical world has determined that addiction is not simply the result of moral failure or poor decision making. Instead, it is a chronic brain disorder, per the American Society of Addiction Medicine. A wide array of serious and potentially life-threatening ramifications can be a result of addiction.

Though addiction typically begins as recreational substance use in social settings, it is an incredibly progressive disease. Repeated substance abuse gradually forms a higher tolerance to the drug or drugs being used. This leads to increased frequency of the behavior and severe forms of cravings and withdrawal. One’s self control is inhibited and a variety of visible symptoms of addiction often follow.

Some signs of addiction include:

  • An insatiable desire to consume substances that hinder one’s ability to control, decrease, or quit the behavior
  • Frequent cravings for the substance
  • Disrupted schedule & lifestyle habits
  • Disregard for adverse effects of drugs
  • Increased amount or dosage of substance consumed to receive the same effect

Addiction’s Effects on the Brain

Addiction has a lot to do with brain chemistry. After entering the body, substances interact with the brain and central nervous system in a way that alters mood, perceptions, emotions, and behaviors. One’s interactions with the world around them is greatly affected by substance use.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is used to reward us when we do something pleasurable. It is often released in the brain when we do things such as eat or exercise. The pleasant feeling we experience from this release of dopamine encourages us to repeat the actions that initially caused it.

In simplest terms, our brain is taught to repeat the behavior so we can receive the reward of feeling good. Drugs prompt the same part of the brain as these other, typically beneficial, behaviors. The same surge of dopamine is released (in exponentially higher quantities) when a substance is consumed and the brain is therefore trained to repeat the behavior.

Though not everyone who consumes psychoactive substances will develop an addiction, it is those initial surges of dopamine that can begin the cycle of substance use disorders.

Prolonged substance consumption can alter one’s ability to experience pleasure at all. These frequent and continued rushes of dopamine eventually lead to smaller releases of the neurotransmitter. Relationships and activities that were once primary sources of reward and pleasure are dulled and less receptive in the brain.

Certain substances affect other parts of the brain and neurotransmitters such as serotonin and norepinephrine. These are the brain’s chemical messengers that control mood, energy, emotions, and nervous system responses. When these regions of the brain are overstimulated and disrupted, life-sustaining functions such as sleep, cardiovascular function, and breathing are all negatively impacted.

What Causes Addiction?

Substance use disorders are unique to the people who experience them. There is no definitive way to decide what the “cause” of anyone’s addiction is. However, there are several major factors that contribute to someone’s risk of substance abuse and substance dependence. These include medical and mental health conditions, genetics, family history of trauma or drug use, and a variety of cultural factors.

Mental Illness

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, upwards of 60% of adolescents in community-based addiction treatment programs also meet diagnostic criteria for another mental illness.

Comorbidity is a term used to define the coexistence of two conditions such as a mental health condition and substance use disorder. While the individual condition does not necessarily cause the other to occur, they often exist and encourage the other.

Individuals with preexisting mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, or schizophrenia tend to have chemical imbalances, increased impulsivity, and other changes in brain structure and function. With this taken into consideration, risk of addiction is highly increased among those with other mental illnesses. Despite the devastating consequences, addiction is compulsive and at times, uncontrollable.

It is not surprising that population surveys show a high rate of comorbidity between substance use disorder and other mental illnesses. While a connection cannot always be proved, we do know that certain mental disorders present themselves as risk factors for drug addiction. Proper dual diagnosis should be carried out by a medical provider to assess and treat an individual appropriately.

Family History of Addiction

Research shows that 40–60% of the likelihood that a person will develop a substance use disorder comes from genetics.

Countless genes and differing variations of those genes demonstrate the complexity of this topic. The nervous system can have varying reactions to substance consumption, based on genetic makeup. According to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, family history presents itself as one of the greatest risk factors of alcohol addiction.

Sufficient research on an individual’s family history can help determine how predispositioned an individual is to addiction. This includes information regarding one’s genetic makeup as well as factors surrounding nature and nurture.

Some prevalent risk factors regarding family history include:

  • A caregiver experiencing substance use disorder
  • A lack of connection, attachment, or effective nurturing
  • Frequent occurrences of unmet needs from caregivers

Stress and other environmental factors play a role in addiction and recovery as a whole. More specifically, stress can induce the release of steroid hormones that regulate genes in the brain. These alterations in the brain and genetics affect the mental reward system that can trigger the creation of an addiction.

Family history of addiction is outside of one's control. However, there are steps that can be taken to prevent the continuation of addiction cycles. Awareness of consumption habits, mindfulness of substance abuse triggers, regular stress management practices, and healthy social relationships can all be productive ways to prevent substance abuse.

Past Trauma

Trauma in its very essence is completely out of someone’s norm. The usual context by which people live and understand life is derailed when a traumatic event occurs.

The brain does not react well to these events; they can leave a person struggling with a variety of complications such as anxiety, depression, social disassociation, post-traumatic stress disorder, anger, trouble sleeping, and more. If these conditions are left unresolved, individuals are more inclined to self-medicate with a wide variety of substances or forms of pleasure.

Statistics show that 20-45% of individuals in treatment for substance use disorder experience comorbid post-traumatic stress disorder. These findings support the idea that trauma drastically increases the risk of addiction.

The brain is an incredibly complex organ and it cannot be entirely understood. However, we do know that there are many precautions that can be taken to avoid persistent disorders such as addiction. Prioritization of mental health treatment and holistic recovery can reduce the risk of continued substance abuse.

Culture, Misinformation, & Normalization

Substance use has become more accepted as a normal part of people’s life experience. Casual substance consumption is seen everywhere. Movies, music, pop culture and entertainment have a huge role in creating normalization and acceptance of certain behaviors.

Substance use is portrayed in a casual light and at times it is even glorified within the entertainment industry.

In addition to this, drugs and alcohol have maintained an increasingly major role in cultural activities. It has become rare to attend a sporting event or social gathering without the involvement of alcohol consumption. Partying has become a fundamental element in a typical “college experience”. Though in moderation this is not inherently wrong, the lack of stigmatization surrounding substance consumption has become a topic of concern.

Conversations regarding substance consumption have been introduced into standard educational practices. However, the information and approach are not always productive. As seen in the above segments, addiction is highly dynamic and individual. There are many causes and risk factors involving addiction. A more well-rounded, scientific, and personal approach to this topic should be taken whenever possible.

Addiction Treatment & Recovery

Great amounts of experience and knowledge are required to treat substance use disorders. Varying approaches and treatment methods are implemented when accommodating each client’s needs. Our programs take a look at each individual’s past, present and future to approach their recovery needs in the most effective way possible. It is a priority to the NACA staff to support full, long-term recovery.

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Our treatment philosphy.

At Northern Arizona Center for Addiction, we believe that healing of the body, mind and spirit are all necessary to overcome substance abuse. We offer a wide range of rehab options in order to facilitate your personal recovery. Our clients can go through drug and alcohol rehabilitation in a safe, comfortable environment, with holistic plans customized to their needs.

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