May 6, 2019 Felicia Durling

Is Addiction a Disease?: Understanding the Causes of Addiction

Did you know that, before the 1980s, substance use disorder and addiction were thought to be a creation of underlying psychopathology?

Today, most of the medical community classifies addiction as a disease. This classification is the result of many years of research into the causes of addiction.

Overcoming the belief that addiction is a choice requires a deeper understanding of the causes of drug addiction. And with that understanding, you may be more willing to admit you need help or to better understand the addict in your life.

Keep reading to learn more about how addiction is a disease, what causes it, and what treatment involves.

Addiction Is a Disease

In light of all the research that’s been done around the subject, the view that addiction is a choice is largely a belief held only by individuals and some small organizations. This view is based on the reality that people make a choice whether or not to use a substance. And if they make the choice to use it, they can make the choice to stop using it.

However, the majority of the medical community now understand addiction is a disease. This is because, although people may choose to try a substance, they can’t choose how their brain and body respond to that substance. So while some people can control their use of substances, others suffer from environmental and biological factors that significantly reduce that control.

As such, most medical associations now classify addiction as a complex psychological and physiological problem. The American Medical Association, the American Society of Addiction Medicine, and the National Insitute on Drug Abuse recognize that addiction is a disease that requires special treatment to overcome.

These organizations classify addiction as a chronic and relapsing brain disease. Its main characteristics involve a compulsive need to seek and use the subject of addiction, and this compulsive need continues despite the consequences.

A person can be addicted to gambling and shopping just as much as they can be addicted to a substance such as an illicit drug. Addictions come in a wide range of mild to severe cases. They can be lifelong or, most likely with the help of treatment, can be overcome.

What Are the Causes of Addiction?

There is no single cause or reason for addiction. The causes of addiction are complex and interconnected. They involve a combination of environmental, biological, and behavioral factors.

Stage of Development

People who use substances in their younger years, as a result, are likely to suffer from addiction as an adult. This means that the age in which a person uses drugs has a major impact on their likeness toward addiction.


Environmental factors that contribute to addiction are:

  • Bad childhood experiences including all forms of abuse as well as neglect
  • Hectic home life
  • An unsupportive community
  • Poor achievement in school
  • Negative attitudes from parents and friends
  • Easy access to drugs and alcohol

Of these factors, the biggest causes of addiction are related to the home environment, friends, school, and family dynamics. But the social status, as well as personal history, are also important determining factors.


Genetics and family history plays a large role in the causes of addiction. Scientific research on the subject finds that 50% to 60% of addiction is due to genetic factors. Therefore, a person who has a family that struggles with addiction is more likely to develop an addiction than a person with no family history of substance abuse and addiction.

Untreated Addiction

One of the major contributors to addiction is leaving a substance use disorder to get worse. When a substance use disorder is left untreated, the result is the addiction  – aka the disease – progresses.

In healthy individuals, feelings of pleasure are controlled by the brain. The brain releases chemicals, especially dopamine, in response to some stimulant. This might be anything from exercise to a feel-good movie.

But most addictive substances also cause the brain to release these chemicals. Drugs get your brain to release the chemicals that cause you to feel pleasure in such high amounts that you get a sense of euphoria and well-being. In addition, these feelings last far longer than your brain can naturally produce.

Over time, this process changes the way your brain works. Your brain no longer understands its natural rhythm in terms of pleasure and rewards.

As such, the body becomes dependent on the drug for dopamine and other pleasure chemicals. The body gets to a point where it can’t feel normal without the help of the drug.

When that happens, the addicted person usually experiences cravings and intense desires to do the drug. They experience withdrawal symptoms over an increasingly shorter period of time. And, they’ll continue to use the drug despite harmful consequences that involve their relationships, responsibilities, and survival.

The longer an addiction is left untreated, the result is a more hindering and life-threatening addiction

How to Treat Addiction

It’s true that the initial decision to use drugs is a choice made by the person. But once an addiction has changed the brain and body chemistry, that choice is largely taken away. This is how people with addictions lose control over their life.

Worse yet, the physiological changes that addiction causes take a long time to reverse. While their brain is healing, they’re more likely to being triggered into using by physical and environmental cues. This is why even after someone stops using the drug, they require ongoing treatment and support.

Treatment for addiction typically begins with detoxification. A medically supervised detox can help someone get off of the drug in the safest and most comfortable way possible. Following detox, addicts typically require a combination of therapies, peer, and family support to stay clean.

Get the Support You Need

Today, the medical community characterizes addiction as a disease that requires lots of support and treatment. We have a better understanding of the causes of addiction, which range from environmental to biological factors. And with all this knowledge, we can offer programs that actually help addicts get back on the right track.

If you or someone you love is suffering from addiction, there is help out there. Read more about our services and how we might help.


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