The long-debated question: Is addiction a choice? Or is it a disease? Short answer, it’s a disease, but more on that later. Unfortunately, there is still a massive stigma around addiction, making it out to be a choice rather than a disease that can be treated. People often think will-power is enough to beat addiction, but it is so much more complicated than that. Today, we’re going to talk about the science behind addiction and why so many people still believe it’s a choice.

Addiction Defined

First order of business, let’s define exactly what addiction is. Addiction is a disease that manipulates the brain into thinking that substances are necessary in order to function normally or properly.  People who suffer from addiction have this compulsive need to use drugs or alcohol despite the negative mental, physical, and social problems it can create for them. Addiction greatly affects the areas in the brain that are responsible for happiness, motivation, reward, learning, memory, and judgment. It’s a disease that greatly affects nearly every aspect of life (jobs, relationships, education, health, etc.) To further reinforce the idea that addiction is a disease is the fact that most medical associations define it as a disease, including the American Medical Association. Now, let’s discuss why people think addiction is a choice versus a disease.

The Stigma of Freewill & Choice

When people think addiction is a choice, it’s because they’ve been raised to believe it’s a matter of freewill. Back in the day, the “Say no to drugs” movement was created to help adolescents fight off impending peer influence to use drugs. Though this is a fine movement, it lacked education for adolescents and didn’t provide enough information on the disease. Most PSAs in the past used scare tactics with gruesome imagery and exaggerated scenarios. PSAs like this and lack of proper addiction education created a massive stigma around the matter, making it seem like a matter of freewill and choice. Individuals who think it is a choice believe that addicts simply lack freewill or a strong moral code; this couldn’t be further from the truth. Most people who struggle with addiction do so based on a combination of behavioral, environmental, and biological factors.

How Addiction Works

Just like any other disease, addiction is caused by behavioral, environmental, and biological factors. Let’s discuss each one of these factors in-depth and how they can influence a person to pick up such a nasty habit as substance abuse.

Behavioral: When a person performs an action, their brain will either tell them it was rewarding or it wasn’t. For example, when we eat food, when we sleep for 8 hrs, when we hang out with friends, we feel a sense of reward and happiness. That is our brain telling us these types of actions are beneficial towards your well-being, thus rewarding you with a rush of dopamine which creates happiness. The unfortunate thing is that substance use is also perceived as “rewarding” in our brain. When a person uses drugs or consumes alcohol, their brain sends a rush of dopamine which makes them feel euphoric and happy. The brain starts to tell someone that this activity is beneficial for their well-being and becomes more and more desirable. This is when a person starts to develop behavioral issues. They start to believe the only way they can feel happy is by using substances, creating an addiction.

Environmental: The environment a person is brought up in and surrounded with plays a significant role in the development of addiction. If a person is surrounded by individuals who regularly abuse substances, they will perceive this as normal and acceptable behavior. If they are raised in a house where their parents or siblings hide their addictions, they may also develop this kind of behavior in the future, making it more difficult for people to have discussions about their habits. Peer influence can also play a huge role in the environment. We all have a desire to fit in and be ‘normal’, so if a person is put in a scenario where “everybody else is doing it”, they may be inclined to use substances as well.

Biological: One of the biggest factors in addiction development is genetics. Addiction is a genetic disease and can be passed down through generations. If your grandfather and father both suffered from alcohol abuse, you would be much more likely to develop addictive habits.

These three factors play a significant role in the development of substance abuse disorders. Now, we can see why will power is not quite enough when it comes to beating addiction. When one or more of these factors have caused a person to develop an addiction, it can be a hard habit to break. The brain is rewired and causes a person to believe they need substances in order to feel normal. Though the initial first decision to use a substance is a choice, the decisions a person makes after that are made by their intoxicated brains. Choice and willpower are greatly impaired when addiction takes hold of a person’s mind.

Next time you think a person should drop their addictive habits, show a little sympathy. Based on the information that has been gathered over the years on addiction, it is clear to see that addicts are not necessarily responsible for their actions. They are being driven by a brain that has been manipulated into thinking substance abuse is normal and beneficial for them. People that are suffering from a disease like addiction need guidance and support in order to beat their dependency. Someone who seemingly fails to consider the health issues that addiction can cause for them is clearly not themselves. So next time you think of addiction as a choice, think again. Addiction is a disease that can be cured with proper support, guidance, and treatment.

If you or someone you know is suffering from this debilitating disease, reach out to a local addiction recovery center today. They can help provide information, guidance, and support for living a sober life.

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