Is Addiction a Choice?

Posted in: Addiction

April 22, 2014

A syringe and spoon with white substance on and near it with a woman behind them

Millions of people struggle with substance addictions each year. National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) reported that over 22 million Americans aged 12 and over had a substance dependence or abuse condition in the previous year. Because many people think that addictions are a choice that a person makes and can therefore be controlled by the person, there is a stigma placed on people who struggle with addictions. Additionally, since many people assume that addictions are simply related to a person’s lack of will-power and self-control, not many people with addictions seek out professional help because they believe that they can fix the issue on their own. The reality, however, is that addiction is a complex disease that cannot be easily managed alone, and that should instead be dealt with in a safe and professional addiction rehabilitation environment.

Definition of Addiction

The American Society of Addiction Medicine defines addiction as “a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory, and related circuitry.” It also lists the following traits of addiction:

  • Inability to consistently abstain from using the substance
  • Craving
  • Impaired behavior control
  • Dysfunctional emotional response
  • Decreased recognition of problems with one’s behaviors and interpersonal relationships
  • Cycles of relapse and remission

Causes and Effects of Addiction

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) explains that while the initial decision to abuse a substance is voluntary for many people, the ways that the substance changes the person’s brain make it extremely difficult to stop using the substance without help. Specifically, substances can change the brain by affecting the brain’s communication pathways in the following ways:

  • By imitating neurotransmitters: this allows the substance to send abnormal messages to the brain and other parts of the body.
  • Through overstimulation of the brain’s reward center: some substances make the brain release high levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that creates intense feelings of pleasure, and thus encourage the person to continue using the drug in order to feel the dopamine high again.

Additionally, the NIDA identifies key factors that influence whether a person will develop an addiction or not. These factors include:

  • Biology: the person’s genetic background, gender, ethnicity, and other possible mental health conditions all affect a person’s likelihood of developing an addiction.
  • Development: the sooner a person is exposed to a substance, and the earlier she begins using it, the more likely she is to become addicted to it.
  • Environment: peer pressure, socioeconomic status, and stress can all be external contributors to a person’s odds of developing an addiction.

While most scientists and healthcare professionals agree that addiction is a disease, some researchers have also pointed out that choice still does play a role in a person’s addiction. Lance Dodes, MD, for example, argues that addiction should be understood as a compulsive behavior that can cause serious problems in a person’s life. Dodes contends that classifying addictions as a compulsion takes away the argument that people with addictions are lazy and self-centered, but also empowers people to make changes in their lives in order to live free from the addiction.

How to Get Help with an Addiction

Regardless of whether addiction is defined as a disease or merely a compulsion, the reality is that an addiction is a complex and challenging health issue that requires careful treatment. In order to ensure a successful recovery, a person with an addiction should receive treatment at a professional substance addiction rehabilitation center. Here they will identify, through therapy and educational classes, the various reasons behind their addiction. They will also learn specific ways that they can manage the addiction in the future. If you or someone you care about is struggling with an addiction, please call us at 615-490-9376. Our admissions coordinators are available to answer your questions about addiction and help you find a rehabilitation program that best suits your needs.

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