An addiction is diagnosed as a chronic brain condition which is re-occurring and compulsive. It is categorised under the disease model, as it is a condition which requires treatment and management to motivate and sustain recovery.

Whilst recovery can be achieved from the likes of a drug or alcohol addiction, relapse is an expected part of the recovery process, highlighting its recognition as a disease. Due to how addictive substances tap into the brain and its structures, long-term disruptions are expected. Those disruptions must be treated and managed in order to promote health, wellbeing, and remission.

Over the years, addiction has been heavily stigmatised, more seen as a lifestyle choice. Yet the disease model of addiction, especially its contemporary model, provides an evidence-based insight into the uncontrollable and routine-like makeup of addiction. It also shows how certain influences can increase the risks of addiction, both internally and externally.

Here’s some further insight into the definition of addiction and its treatment as we consider ‘what is the disease model of addiction?’. Offering evidence-based addiction treatment programmes, here at Ocean Recovery we can support you if you’re struggling with a substance use disorder.

Defining addiction

Addiction is a chronic condition that reflects a loss of control over personal tolerances and exposure. The historical disease model of addiction mostly recognised substance dependence as a choice, as accepted behaviour, and as dysfunctional habit. Yet the most recent neurological evidence defines addiction as a brain disease, due to how drugs and alcohol interact with and damage parts of the brain.

  • Common signs and symptoms of addiction include:
  • Withdrawal symptoms if exposure is paused or discontinued
  • Tolerances to drugs or alcohol
  • Physical and psychological cravings
  • Mental health symptoms
  • Withdrawal from everyday life
  • Habit-like behaviours
  • Change in physical wellbeing
  • Change in social, family and career responsibilities
  • Prioritising drug/alcohol fuelled routines, associations, and moments

An addiction forms a habit-like cycle, found to disrupt organic functionality. Loss of control comes from the changes that are found within specific brain regions. Those regions control emotions, outlooks, decisions, and perceptions.

Understanding addiction is very important as there are also a multitude of causations and influential factors which can induce such damage. Instead of it being an active choice, addiction involves the influence of biological, neurological, genetic, and environmental stimuli.

Addiction is in fact a complex disease, which has many different layers to its cause, effects, and recovery. Here’s a deeper look into the medical theory as we answer, ‘what is the disease model of addiction?’.

History of addiction

Prior to scientific research into addiction, substance dependence was once described as an uncomfortable, distressing, and dysfunctional habit. It was deemed a choice and fuelled by lifestyle adoptions.

Over the years, as research has developed, the theory of addiction as a disease has emerged, underpinned by scientific evidence. Found to target specific brain structures and regions, addiction is a brain disease that taps into the reward pathways. Once disturbed, such pathways will remain, impacting the association that users have with consumption. For example, the euphoric and escape-like effects of drug abuse can quickly be associated with psychological rewards, helping to churn the cycle.

Addictive behaviours, a lack of control, impulsive decision making and routine-like choices all stem from the change in brain physiology. The toxicity of drugs and alcohol cause cognitive impairments to the basal ganglia and the prefrontal cortex, resulting in lasting vulnerabilities.

The effects of addiction recognise it as a brain disease, incorporating its diagnosis into the disease model. It’s also classed as a disease due to its various causations, some of which are pre-existing, and its need for ongoing treatment and management, rather than a possible cure.

The disease model of addiction

The disease model involves four key influences, including biological, neurological, genetic, and environmental stimuli. The model highlights how such stimulus can cause, aggravate, and ingrain addictive behaviours, without any form of choice or conscious action.

Biological factors: Biological susceptibilities are found to increase the risks of addiction. Internal factors cannot be controlled due to genetics, supporting the contemporary definition of addiction.

Neurological factors: Brain structures and functionality differ from person to person. The model suggests how brain health can contribute to the development of addictive behaviours and mental health issues.

Genetic factors: Some people are prone to disease more than others, which again is carried through genetic makeup. Such influences cannot be controlled, highlighting the uncontrollable nature of addiction.

Environmental factors: Certain environments are found to normalise and teach substance abuse as an acceptable action. Toxic, traumatic, early use of drugs and low parental involvement are all influential factors.

Such stimuli make addiction a complex disease, developing and associating for many different reasons. Whilst the majority of users will crave the positive reinforcements of exposure, there are also many other uncontrollable stimuli that strengthens the disease model of addiction.

Treating the disease of addiction

Due to its complexity and strong physiological and neurological impacts, addiction must be treated through evidence-based, tailored treatment services. Treatment is essential in order to withdraw from and operate without addictive substances.

As addiction is a disease, which cannot be cured, management is also key, which should be incorporated into addiction treatment and rehabilitation steps.

Through rehab, addiction treatments will be offered to initially detox the body from drugs and alcohol. A medically assisted detoxification process will be delivered. From here, treatment will work to understand the cause and underlying influences of addiction, on a per-client basis. Tapping into the disease model, influences will be evaluated against addictive behaviours and outlooks.

Therapeutic and talking therapies will be recommended, as will, holistic therapies to restore, heal and rebalance the mind. A large focus will also be placed on health and wellbeing, to improve brain health, functionality, and mental health.

Due to its relapsing risks, recovery is the end goal which will be managed through aftercare services, relapse prevention planning and self-awareness. At Ocean Recovery, a comprehensive treatment programme can be completed on an inpatient basis.

The understanding of addiction and its disease diagnosis has come a long way over the years. The disease model indicates the pre-existing risks of addiction, along with its unpredictable causes, effects and impacts on users. It debunks the notion of conscious choices surrounding substance abuse.

For more information on ‘what is the disease model of addiction?’, reach out to our team. Alternatively, we are here to help you through your addiction rehabilitation journey.

    Ocean Recovery - Author - Last updated: March 24, 2023