Is Addiction a Choice or Disease?

Addiction comes in all forms and varies from person to person. Anyone can be addicted to virtually anything, at any time, given the right circumstances. What exactly is addiction, though, and how do you know if you or someone you love may have an addiction? Addiction, or substance use disorder is:

defined as a chronic, relapsing disorder characterized by compulsive drug seeking, continued use despite harmful consequences, and long-lasting changes in the brain. (

Addiction is a serious, life-threatening disorder. It alters the way an individual acts, thinks and responds to different aspects of daily life. The first stage of recovery is recognizing and admitting there is a problem. To start this stage, it is important to understand and recognize the symptoms of addiction.

How To Recognize Addiction?

Addiction has many symptoms, and these symptoms may vary in degrees and severity. Some of the symptoms are physical, while others are emotional/psychological. There are classical criteria used to diagnose addiction. To get a diagnosis of addiction (substance use disorder), an individual must meet at least two or more of the following criteria, over the last 12 months:

  • The user spends a significant amount of time attempting to obtain and use the substance.
  • The user craves the substance.
  • The user wants to stop using the substance but is unsuccessful.
  • The user experiences loss of enjoyment from social, recreational, and occupational activities due to the substance.
  • The user continues to misuse the substance regardless of physical hazards.
  • The user experiences a decline in performance at work, home, or school
  • The user experiences a tolerance to the substance and must use more than originally intended.
  • The user continues to misuse the substance regardless of any social problems it is causing.
  • The user continues to misuse the substance regardless of any physical or psychological problems it is causing.
  • The user experiences withdrawal symptoms and may misuse the substance to avoid these symptoms.

If you or a loved one are experiencing these symptoms, a substance use disorder may be present. If you feel that you, or a loved one, may have a substance use disorder, it is important to reach out to a trained medical professional to receive the help you need for recovery. The diagnosis of a substance use disorder marks a new beginning for many. That new beginning is a journey to recovery. During this process, it is helpful to understand what causes addiction, and how addiction works in the brain and body.

Is Addiction a Choice or Disease?

What Causes a Substance Use Disorder?

While the exact cause for addiction cannot be named, even after years of study and research, scientists have theorized that there are several factors that play a strong role in addiction. Some individuals are more likely than others to develop a substance use disorder, and today, thanks to research, we can identify those individuals.

Scientists have discovered that substance use disorder is developed due to a number of outside factors, including (but not limited to) environment, socioeconomic status, genetics, trauma, mental health, and another personal history. Individuals that have a history of being abused, have a parent with an addiction, live in poverty, have access to illicit substances, have a mental health disorder, and have a high level of stress are shown to have a higher risk for developing a substance use disorder.

Behind the Disease of Addiction

For years, there has been a debate within society as to whether addiction is a choice or a disease. Some may argue that an individual chooses to misuse a substance for the first time, thus creating the addiction. This argument defines addiction as a choice. However, it’s not that simple. While an individual may choose to try an illicit substance, the urge and compulsion to keep misusing that substance, or to broaden the spectrum and misuse others, actually comes with physical changes within the brain. Thus, addiction is born.

How Do Substances Affect the Brain?

To understand the disease of addiction, one must take a look at how drugs and other illicit substances affect the makeup of the brain. When an illicit substance is introduced to the brain, it can actually alter the way information is sent from the brain’s control centers to the rest of the body. The areas most commonly affected by illicit substances are:

  • The Brain Stem- This area of the brain is responsible for basic functions that are essential for life- like breathing and heart rate.
  • The Prefrontal Cortex- This area of the brain plays a part in impulse control and decision making.
  • The Extended Amygdala- This area of the brain plays a big part in stress response and anxiety.
  • The Basal Ganglia- This is the brain area responsible for a motivation driven by pleasure, habit formation, and reward.

When introduced into the brain, substances alter the way each of these areas functions. With repeated use, the brain can no longer effectively output the correct information to the rest of the body without the assistance of illicit substances. This includes effectively releasing dopamine as well as effectively controlling the impulse response and decision making. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse,

 Addiction is not a choice; it’s a brain disease. Drugs can change how the brain works, and those changes can last for a long time. (

This means that while an individual may choose to use a drug for the first time, it is not a choice to become addicted or to form a substance use disorder. The physical changes to the brain are what cause a substance use disorder.

Can Someone With an Addiction Just Stop  Drug Use?

A person with a substance use disorder is (usually) highly dependent on the substance they misuse. The body and brain begin to require the substance to function. When a person with substance use disorder tries to quit using, they may experience withdrawals.

Withdrawal symptoms can cause great distress both physically and mentally, and can actually be very dangerous if done without the help of medical professionals. Some symptoms of withdrawal are body aches, fever, dehydration, nausea, vomiting, other gastrointestinal issues, and in severe cases it can even cause seizures or convulsions.

It is best for an individual with a substance use disorder to receive help for their addiction from trained medical professionals. Not only for the withdrawal and detox phase of recovery but also to address all relative issues. This includes getting the mental health help a person may need, addressing the reasons behind the addiction, and creating behavioral changes and new mindsets that allow a successful recovery.

Finding the Best Treatment to Start Recovery for Addiction at ASPEN Behavioral Health

Recovery is a journey, not a destination. At Aspen Behavioral Health, we believe addiction is difficult, but the process of getting sober doesn’t have to be. Our highly trained experts offer a medical detox program to help with any withdrawal symptoms, and we focus on using a client-based approach to ensure the path to recovery fits the needs of the individual.

That means that no matter where you are in your journey, we can meet your individual needs and help you be successful. Don’t wait, call Aspen Behavioral Health today to start your journey of recovery. Let us be your helping hand.


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