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Why Addiction Is a Disease

Addiction is a complicated topic, and asking, “What is addiction?” can lead to a plethora of different answers. Whether someone is just beginning to research addiction as a disease or are tackling addiction themselves, no part of understanding or overcoming addiction is easy. Knowing why addiction is a disease and how to help someone with addiction are crucial in addressing the topic at length.

There are many biological components that go into addiction, making overcoming addiction much more than just a question of willpower, and understanding how the brain processes addictive substances or behaviors is essential in breaking down the notion that addiction can be overcome with determination alone. While a person’s desire to reach sobriety is a key part of recovery, it is also necessary to understand why addiction is a disease and the complications it can cause those whom it affects. 

Nobody Sets Out to Become Addicted

Understanding how addiction is more than a trial of willpower means realizing that nobody sets out to become addicted, nor is it easy to simply stop. It is very possible that those suffering from addiction are fully aware of the destructive nature of their behavior, but are finding the cessation of any behavior or substance extraordinarily difficult.

A person’s body and mind may be sending conflicting signals to them about their use of an addictive substance, which can make understanding addiction very complicated. While a person may be aware that their actions are actively detrimental to their own goals, it is possible that the brain is convinced that certain substances or behaviors are essential to its survival. Overcoming addiction isn’t about just wanting to stop, it is about addressing the body’s belief that certain behaviors or substances are a survival need.

Addictions can also start from very innocent beginnings. Casual trips to the bar after work can instill a positive relationship with alcohol that can develop in a potentially dangerous direction. Certain painkillers, even when prescribed appropriately due to an injury, can have addictive tendencies that may cause someone to seek out other drug or narcotic alternatives once someone’s prescription has run out. 

Why Is Addiction Considered a Disease? 

The definition of disease encompasses a large array of factors. Diseases can be any kind of disorder that produces specific symptoms or target particular parts of the body, excluding external injury. Understanding disease in this definition can shed light on addiction’s status as a disease rather than a question of willpower. How addiction works is by fundamentally altering how the brain perceives situations or forms thoughts. It can inhibit a person’s decision-making ability while hijacking the brain’s rewards system. This rewards system utilizes dopamine and dopamine receptors in order to provide feedback on whether or not the body likes something.

If someone is enjoying a particular drink or action, their brain may release these chemicals in order to provide that “happy” feeling that comes with enjoying what a person is doing. Addiction can begin to take over this part of the brain that is responsible for controlling the release of dopamine, and program the body to require an addictive substance or behavior in order for someone to feel “happy.” 

As someone continues to engage in addictive behaviors, they may require more of a substance or longer performances of a certain action in order to receive this same result. This increase in the need to achieve the same effect as before is known as tolerance. All of these factors directly affect a person’s own brain chemistry and produce a number of symptoms if someone is unable to engage in addictive behavior, thus classifying addiction as a very real, very serious disease. 

The Genetic Side of Addiction

There are also genetic components tied to addiction. If a person has suffered an addiction of any kind through their lives, any children they may have may be at an increased risk of developing an addiction themselves. This increased risk can cause addiction to set in much earlier for some people over others, and there are genetic tests available to help individuals discover these increased risks in themselves. However, while some people may be at a higher risk for certain addictions, it is still possible to develop an addiction for anyone. Addiction doesn’t discriminate between sexes, races, or socioeconomic status, and can affect anyone if the symptoms go unnoticed or unaddressed. 

How Addiction Develops — Maslow’s Pyramid

Addiction can develop over time. While some substances or behaviors may be more addictive than others, all addictions can affect a person’s daily routines and thought patterns. Whether someone is suffering from an addiction to alcohol, drugs, sex, porn, caffeine, sugar, gambling, or shopping, the development of addiction can cause a person to schedule their days around their ability to engage with the addictive substance or behavior. Addictions can quickly develop and become a part of a person’s everyday life. Using Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, someone can better understand how addiction works and why it can be so difficult to overcome without proper support and the necessary level of professional care. 

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is divided into five portions, shaped like a pyramid. At the top of this pyramid is self-actualization, and reaching this level in one’s life means that someone has accomplished self-fulfilling goals in their life and has realized their talents and potential. One step down is self-esteem, which is dictated by one’s confidence in themself, the respect they have garnered from peers, and the discovery of their individuality. The middle section is the social needs that someone has, including the love and acceptance of family, friends, developing social skills, and a feeling of belonging among others. The next level is the need for safety, which incorporates one’s need for physical protection such as a house, as well as secure employment and overall health. The base of Maslow’s pyramid is a person’s basic physiological needs. This is achieved by having access to food, water, air, and basic essentials necessary for survival. 

How addiction works is by someone incorporating their need to engage in addictive behaviors at various points in this pyramid. At first, an addiction to alcohol may be used as a component in one’s self-esteem, in order to gain confidence in social situations. While this use of alcohol may not seem too dangerous at first, it can also set a precedent for creating a positive connection between a person’s use of alcohol and achieving the desired result. This prompts the brain to release dopamine and reward someone for drinking. As someone continues to engage in this kind of activity, they may be continually rewarded and incorporate it in other parts of the pyramid. As someone continues to use and develop a relationship with an addictive substance or behavior, it may be incorporated into even the base level of the pyramid, as someone believes that the use of a substance or participating in a particular addictive behavior is just as essential to their survival as food, water, air, or shelter.

This is why addiction is can be so difficult to overcome, and typically requires the help of others as the person struggling with addiction attempts to rebuild their sense of safety, both physically and emotionally, from the ground up towards self-actualization. 

How to Help Someone With an Addiction

Addictions can be incredibly difficult to overcome, and someone may even still experience urges for the rest of their lives even after attaining their sobriety. However, it is possible to overcome addiction with the right support, personal drive, and the understanding and use of one’s coping mechanisms on a daily basis. Supporting a friend, family member, or loved one who is suffering from an addiction can be very complicated, but there are a number of ways that each person can help a loved one in need. 

Reinforce Your Presence

Addiction can be a very isolating disease, causing people to shut themselves off from those around them. This can be because of a belief that their disease won’t be understood, the shame or guilt involved with addiction, or due to a need to prioritize their use of a substance or behavior over the other people in their lives. Simply reinforcing one’s presence and willingness to help can go a long way. Sending supportive texts, emails, regularly checking in, or calling those who are suffering from an addiction on a regular basis can set the groundwork for a positive relationship geared towards recovery. 

Create a Safe Space to Talk

Creating a space where someone feels comfortable about opening up can be the first step towards getting the professional help that may be needed to address a person’s addiction. Helping someone who is suffering from addiction doesn’t always require active support, but also a passive, safe space where they can begin to realize their relationship with an addictive substance or behavior, as well as their relationship with the supportive individuals who surround them.

Meet Them Where They Are

Someone struggling with addiction may be suffering much more than they let on. Understanding the extent to which addiction can affect a person’s life is crucial in meeting someone where they are and building back up towards a healthier future.

This also means that someone should avoid making assumptions about another’s addiction, and be ready to provide support at any level of Maslow’s pyramid. How this support will look in practice is dependent on each unique individual and their own needs and goals. Working alongside someone suffering from addiction and learning about their interests, goals, and difficulties in recovery is essential in creating a unique and effective recovery support plan. 

Help With Research

Addiction is an incredibly complicated disease that can manifest in a variety of different ways. Helping someone do research about the situation can help them better understand the trials they may face in recovery, as well as why recovery is necessary for their own health. It may also involve doing research into various recovery facilities in order to find one with an approach that may best fit a person’s own goals, or employs certain practices that may be particularly effective for each individual. Different facilities may have different core practices or a variety of clientele that form their recovery community. Doing research about both the complications of addiction, as well as the recovery options available to each individual, can help a person suffering from addiction be more open about their recovery options going forward. 

Addiction is a disease, and knowing how addiction works and the steps someone can take to begin helping another with addiction is the first step towards a healthier future. No part of overcoming this disease is easy, regardless of each individual’s circumstances. The biological and emotional components can make recovery from addiction a life-long journey, but recovery and sobriety are always possible. Understanding what addiction is, how addiction works, and what steps a person can take are all necessary for each individual to continue climbing their own pyramid towards self-actualization. 


Overcoming addiction requires time and care, and Chateau Recovery can help you with both on your own journey to recovery. If you or a loved one is suffering from an addiction to drugs or alcohol and are ready to take the first step towards your own sober future today, Chateau Recovery can provide a quiet, spacious atmosphere and individualized programs for you.

By addressing both the personal and medical sides of addiction, we can help you get a better understanding of your own path through recovery while providing you the comfort you need to address any daily trials you need to overcome. We can create individualized plans based on your unique goals and needs in recovery, all backed by a robust and proven set of core practices that can help you each step of the way on your journey.

For more information on how we can help you, or to learn how we can personalize a recovery plan for your unique situation, call us today at (435) 222-5225.

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