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Is Addiction a Choice?

Sep 30, 2022

Despite how far scientific research on addiction has come, the debate about addiction being a choice persists. Unfortunately, this outdated thinking can have a negative impact on people who need treatment, as it often fosters judgment in friends, family members, and colleagues. Let’s address the myth that addiction is a character weakness and explore what makes it a disease.

The misinformed belief of addiction as a choice contributes to the stigma and may interfere with people with substance use disorders getting the support they need.

In looking at addiction as a disease, the focus on demonstrating how it’s treatable can reach more people who either need treatment or who have loved ones in need of treatment.

If you or a loved one need help, call our admissions team today at 561-270-1753.

The Stigma of Addiction

Someone’s beliefs about addiction can color how they respond to a person with a substance use disorder. Whether it’s coming from a loved one, friend, or colleague, beliefs can attribute addiction to a failing of an individual. In this situation, the people judging someone with addiction may have little or no real information about how it can develop, and they may not seek out education that could inform them about the nuances of substance use.

The results of stigmatizing addiction can make a person needing treatment see their drug use as a choice. They may believe it’s a moral failing or due to a lack of willpower. They may attempt to hide the problem or believe it will resolve itself in time. Ultimately, many people feeling the stigma of addiction will attempt to quit on their own, which can be both unsuccessful and harmful.

The Concept of Addiction as a Disease

The disease concept is still relatively new in some circles, although it’s been consistently promoted within addiction treatment communities for several decades. 

As Headwaters’ Chief Clinical Officer Dr. John Dyben, DHSC, MCAP, CMHP explains, “We as a society must change our beliefs, and we must redirect our practices to reflect an understanding of addiction as a disease that should be treated like any other disease.”

The definition of addiction as a disease is intended to destigmatize it and view it in the same way we view cancer, heart disease, diabetes, or any other chronic health condition.

In Scientific American, Dr. Nora D. Volkow, M.D., Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse at the National Institutes of Health, describes it this way: “Addiction is indeed many things—a maladaptive response to environmental stressors, a developmental disorder, a disorder caused by dysregulation of brain circuits, and yes, a learned behavior.” Dr. Volkow emphasizes biological factors are not alone in contributing to addiction as psychological, behavioral, societal, and economic exist, too. She goes on to emphasize the need for a cohesive public health response to provide widespread access to treatment and lessen stigma.

How Addiction Affects the Brain

Treatment specialists refer to addiction as a “disease of the brain.” In the way that heart disease affects the heart and lung disease affects the lungs, a disease of the brain affects its ability to function properly. Addiction can make long-term changes to the brain and even cause permanent changes to brain function.

Consider the brain’s function as a center of pleasure. Drug use increases certain chemicals in the brain, including dopamine, connected to pleasure. When these chemicals increase artificially through drug use, their ability to be produced naturally is affected. Someone with addiction may not feel pleasure without taking a drug and feel compelled to return to drug use for that reason.

Chronic addiction can affect another function of the brain: the learning process. For example, someone with an addiction may struggle to learn and remember new concepts, focus on what’s happening around them, or make decisions and participate in short-term and long-term planning.

Executives Can Find Treatment at Headwaters

Addiction treatment is vital for executives who need recovery to protect their health, relationships, professional licenses, livelihoods, and future earnings and career growth. At Headwaters, private addiction treatment is offered exclusively to executives and high-profile individuals who need healing from years of drug or alcohol misuse. In addressing addiction, an assessment for mental health may reveal underlying issues, which also may have been stigmatized in the past. Dual diagnosis treatment for the executive can help them learn steps for a sustainable recovery as well as strategies for healthy responses to the symptoms of depression, anxiety, or trauma.

Tour Headwaters
Bedroom at HeadwatersHanley Foundation’s Headwaters is a non-profit addiction treatment program for executives, public figures, other affluent individuals, and their loved ones. Headwaters offers leading-edge, personalized clinical care for mental health and substance use disorders, and our professional and compassionate staff can help you achieve holistic wellness. To start your healing journey, call 561-270-1753 today.

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