Understanding the Disease Model of Addiction


The disease model of addiction treats addiction as a chronic brain disorder. It moves away from viewing addiction as a moral failure and instead considers the environmental, neurological and genetic origins.

At CATCH Recovery, the disease model guides our use of evidence-based therapies and ongoing research to ensure more effective treatments. By recognising addiction as a chronic condition, we emphasise the importance of long-term support and relapse prevention, greatly enhancing the chances of sustained recovery. This approach allows us to provide scientifically grounded and personalised care that addresses the complex nature of addiction.

This page will explain the basics of the disease model, its development over time, and how it impacts addiction treatment.

Key Takeaways

  1. The disease model views addiction as a chronic brain disorder resulting from repeated exposure to addictive substances, shifting the perception from moral failure to a neurological and medical condition.
  2. Behavioural therapies, such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), are fundamental in addiction treatment. They play an important role in managing withdrawal symptoms, preventing relapse, and reshaping thought patterns to support long-term recovery.
  3. Genetic and environmental factors significantly contribute to addiction risk. Variations in multiple genes interact with life experiences like peer pressure and family attitudes, highlighting the need for a comprehensive treatment approach.

Defining the Disease Model of Addiction

Rather than viewing addiction as a series of poor choices, consider it as a chronic brain disorder that gradually entraps the mind in a cycle of compulsion and dependence. This is the crux of the brain disease model, which posits that addiction is a consequence of repeated exposure to addictive substances. It’s a narrative that shifts the blame from moral failure to a medical framework, allowing us to see substance use disorder through the lens of science and compassion.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), highlights the commonality among all drugs of abuse – their direct activation of the brain’s reward system. These substances interfere with the brain’s circuits. The disease model of addiction explicates this transformation from voluntary drug use to drug abuse, a chronic disorder marked by a loss of control over mental health disorders.1

As neuroscience advances, it provides a detailed image of the neurobiological changes that occur when recreational substance use descends into the spiral of addiction. This model of addiction recognises that vulnerability to substance dependence varies among individuals and is influenced by a complex interplay of genes, neurological pathways, and life experiences. It acknowledges that while the dice of biology are cast, the outcome is not deterministic – the environment and society at large influence.

A disease, defined as substantial and deteriorating changes in body structure or function, aligns with the disease concept of addiction. It encapsulates the biopsychosocial deterioration that comes with dependency. The evidence for this model is wide-ranging, including:

  • Animal studies that reveal the raw mechanics of addiction
  • Brain imaging that illustrates its impact on humans
  • Twin studies that quantify the genetic risk

Understanding addiction through the disease model opens the door to targeted, compassionate treatment strategies that can lead to sustainable addiction recovery.

Brain Changes and Neurotransmitters Involved

Examining the brain of a person struggling with addiction reveals an altered landscape due to the constant presence of drugs. Addiction disturbs the delicate balance of neurotransmitters, including dopamine, GABA, and opioids, which play a central role in the reward system and addictive behaviours. The surge of dopamine release, a hallmark of drug use, is particularly insidious, as it reinforces the rewarding effects of drugs, embedding them into the psyche.2

The landscape of addiction is not uniform; it affects specific brain regions, namely:

  • The basal ganglia, which plays a role in the formation of habits
  • The extended amygdala, which is involved in the distress of withdrawal
  • The prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for weakened willpower to resist temptation

Each of these regions plays a pivotal role in the drama of dependence.

Over time, these changes lead to a shift from intentional, goal-directed behaviour to compulsive, habitual actions resistant to change. This is not merely a matter of will but a reflection of profound neuroadaptations, including:

  • Increased incentive salience
  • Decreased reward sensitivity
  • Increased stress
  • Compromised executive function

These adaptations forge the chains of addiction, making the act of seeking drugs less a choice and more an automatic response to deeply ingrained cues.

Understanding these brain changes holds more than academic interest; it carries significant implications for treatment. Brain imaging technologies have become a window into the addicted mind, revealing the altered neuronal activity and neurochemistry that accompany substance dependence. They help us understand how addictive drugs alter brain function by affecting dopamine receptor activity in regions like the prefrontal cortex and striatum, offering clues to reversing these changes.

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The Role of Genetics and Family History

Many factors contributing to addiction may be established long before a person first uses a substance, existing latent within our DNA. Genetics account for a significant portion of the risk for substance use disorders, with estimates suggesting a 40-60% contribution.3 This risk is not substance-specific but rather spans across different types of substances, painting a picture of a shared genetic vulnerability.5

The genetic story of addiction is a tapestry woven from many threads. Variations in multiple genes interact with environmental factors to influence the risk of addiction. For instance, certain variations in the dopamine receptor gene (DRD2) are more common among those addicted to alcohol, cocaine, and opioids. Twin and adoption studies have proven particularly illuminating, estimating the heritability for addiction to be influenced by:

  • Variations in multiple genes
  • Environmental factors
  • Certain variations in the dopamine receptor gene (DRD2)
  • Twin and adoption studies

The heritability for addiction is estimated to be around 50%.

Family history is more than just a set of genetic instructions; it’s a living narrative that can offer clues about an individual’s predisposition to addiction. By comparing DNA sequences of family members, researchers can identify the genetic actors involved in addiction. Animal models, such as mice, serve as proxies in this genetic theatre, allowing scientists to observe the roles played by addiction-related genes and their functions.

Environmental Factors Influencing Addiction

In addition to genetic factors, the environment shapes the realm of addiction. Peer pressure, for instance, can dress substance use in a cloak of normalcy, enticing individuals, especially teenagers, to indulge in an effort to fit in. This pressure can be overt, with direct encouragement to use substances, or it can be subtle, with individuals perceiving that their peers are engaging in substance use and feeling left out if they do not join in.4

The home environment plays a critical role as well. Family attitudes towards substance use and the level of supervision can either buffer against or contribute to the risk of developing a substance use disorder. A history of childhood trauma, such as abuse or neglect, can also significantly increase vulnerability to addiction.

Interestingly, the adolescent brain is particularly susceptible to the influences of substance use. The still-developing prefrontal cortex, responsible for decision-making and impulse control, is not yet fully equipped to ward off the allure of drugs or alcohol. This developmental vulnerability is reflected in the long-term effects of alcohol use on the adolescent brain, which include neurocognitive deficits and structural changes.

Medical Treatments for Addiction

Medical treatments, which stand as a testament to the disease model of addiction, provide a structured approach to overcoming the psychological aspect of dependency. Medication-assisted treatments such as methadone and buprenorphine help individuals dependent on opioids manage the tumultuous seas of withdrawal symptoms and reduce their reliance on illicit drugs.10

The medical approach to addiction treatment is multi-staged. Medications are deployed at key points in the recovery process: to manage initial withdrawal, to support long-term treatment aimed at preventing relapse, and as ongoing maintenance therapies to support a life of recovery. Medications like naltrexone, for example, are wielded as shields to parry the thrusts of relapse in alcohol and opioid addiction.

However, the battle against addiction is not won by pharmacology alone. For those with severe or complicated drug-related problems, detoxification programs and residential rehabilitation services become sanctuaries of healing, offering the space and support needed to break free from the grip of substances. These services are complemented by local drug services, which offer testing and treatment for conditions such as hepatitis and HIV, thus reducing the health risks associated with drug use.

The frontier of addiction medicine is ever-expanding, with new targets for treatment emerging from the depths of neuroscience research. For example, the endocannabinoid system has revealed potential therapeutic targets for reducing anxiety and depression, both of which are often bedfellows of addiction. Similarly, transcriptional and epigenetic changes linked to substance use can light the way to new addiction treatments.

Behavioural Therapies in Addiction Treatment

In addiction treatment, pharmaceuticals are not the only approach. Behavioural therapies play a crucial role in strengthening the resolve against substance use. One effective therapy is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), which helps individuals develop essential coping mechanisms for long-term recovery.

CBT operates on the premise that our thoughts, feelings, and actions are deeply intertwined. It empowers those in recovery by increasing their awareness of these connections and by fostering a greater understanding of how certain thought patterns can lead to substance use. Through this lens of insight, individuals can begin to unravel the threads of their addictive behaviours and construct a tapestry of healthier habits.

Support groups and peer networks also play a crucial role in the behavioural therapy arsenal. These self-organised meetings provide a sanctuary for individuals in recovery to support one another in maintaining abstinence. The collective strength fostered within these groups is a testament to the power of shared experience and communal resilience in the face of addiction.

Yet, the most potent weapon in behavioural therapy is its adaptability, allowing for individualised treatment approaches that cater to the unique needs of each person embarking on the journey to recovery. This tailored approach ensures that no one is left navigating the labyrinth of addiction without a map that resonates with their personal story.

In the following subsections, we delve into the complexities of these behavioural therapies, investigating the transformative potential of CBT, the supportive roles of peer groups, and the custom-fit nature of individualised treatment approaches.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)

CBT is rooted in the cognitive triangle model, which highlights the interconnectedness between thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. By modifying thought patterns, CBT aims to manage emotions and dismantle addictive habits. Therapists guide patients through the labyrinth of their minds, helping them identify and address negative ‘automatic thoughts’ that can trigger substance use.

CBT is a beacon that lights the way to self-awareness, arming individuals with the skills to:

  • Recognise, avoid, and cope with the triggers that lead to substance use
  • Replace false beliefs with more realistic ones
  • Reconstruct their mental frameworks and break free from the chains of addiction.

This therapy is not confined to a single setting; it adapts to:

  • Inpatient
  • Outpatient
  • Group
  • Individual counselling environments

With typically meaningful results manifesting within 16 sessions, CBT offers a hands-on, action-focused treatment approach. It’s not just about medical treatments; thinking and behavioural skills may also help reverse the brain changes associated with addiction.

Support groups like SMART Recovery harness CBT principles to maintain sobriety, blending the personal touch of therapy with the communal strength of group support. Cognitive behavioural therapy, along with motivational interviewing, forms the bedrock of relapse prevention, serving as a compass for those navigating the treacherous waters of addiction recovery.

Support Groups and Peer Networks

Support groups play a vital role in the collective battle against substance dependency in addiction recovery. They are self-organised meetings where individuals in recovery can draw strength from one another’s experiences and triumphs. Structured programs like Narcotics Anonymous (UKNA) offer a scaffold of support, providing peer encouragement and guidance throughout the recovery process.

These groups contribute to the maintenance of sobriety not just by offering advice and acceptance but also by providing a potential source of lifelong support. Peer support programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous and recovery coaching have proven to be effective allies in the battle to prevent relapse.

The transformative power of support groups lies in the positive attitudes they foster. In a reversal of the peer pressure that may have once led individuals to substance use, these groups provide more positive attitudes and encouragement to abstain from drugs or alcohol.

The collective will of a group can serve as a bulwark against the isolation and temptation that often accompany the path to recovery.

Individualised Treatment Approaches

Personalised treatment programs represent the height of customisation in addiction treatment. Tailored to each client’s unique needs, these bespoke programs ensure that treatment strategies resonate on a personal level, maximising the potential for a successful recovery.

The acknowledgement of the individual’s journey signifies a shift from a one-size-fits-all approach to a more nuanced understanding of the complexity of addiction.

Critiques and Controversies Surrounding the Disease Model

Even though widely adopted, the brain disease model of addiction does have its critics. Some argue that it presents only half the picture, neglecting other crucial factors involved in substance use disorders. Concerns have been raised that by emphasising the disease aspect, individuals may feel they have limited free will or agency over their drug use, which could make quitting harder.6

The model has also faced criticism for potentially causing:

  • feelings of helplessness among individuals dealing with addiction, potentially influencing their motivation to seek recovery
  • not effectively reducing the moral stigma associated with addiction
  • in some cases, introducing a new stigma by labelling it as a disease.

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Alternative Perspectives on Addiction

Alternative perspectives challenge the singular view of addiction as just a chronic brain disease, offering a more nuanced understanding of this complex issue. The biopsychosocial model, for instance, considers addiction to be influenced by an intricate interplay of biological, psychological, and social factors.7 Carl Hart, a neuroscientist, champions the idea that drug use can be a means of seeking and sustaining happiness, not merely a one-way street to addiction.

These alternative perspectives add depth to our understanding, emphasising the role of voluntary choice and the importance of psychological factors in addiction. They remind us that the brain-disease model, while crucial, does not encapsulate the entire spectrum of influences that contribute to substance use disorders. By considering addiction through these varied lenses, we gain a more holistic view of the issue, opening the door to a wider range of treatment approaches.

Addiction as a Choice

The theory that addiction is a matter of personal choice contends that individuals have control over their substance use and, by extension, the power to decide to stop. Advocates of this perspective suggest that emphasising personal responsibility can instil a sense of empowerment, motivating individuals to seek recovery and make healthier decisions. According to Heyman, addiction is voluntary and influenced by preferences and goals, with many people overcoming addiction through personal choice.

Carl Hart offers a poignant example, sharing his regular heroin use without meeting the criteria for addiction as defined by the DSM-V. This narrative suggests that drug use can coexist with personal goals and responsibilities without necessarily leading to addiction. The choice model presents a counter-narrative to the disease model, encouraging a discourse emphasising free will and the potential for change.

Addiction as a Coping Mechanism

For many, drug addiction serves as a makeshift raft in the tumultuous waters of trauma and mental health conditions such as grief, anxiety, and depression. Gabor Maté characterises drugs as ‘emotional anaesthetics,’ used not for the high but for the relief they offer from pain, emphasising the role of emotional factors in addiction. This perspective views addiction as a coping strategy, an attempt to manage stress, emotional pain, or unresolved trauma.

When treating addiction as a coping mechanism, therapy often involves delving into the underlying psychological and emotional issues that contribute to substance use. It is critical to address these root causes, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, to effectively untangle the web of addiction. Therapies that focus on trauma, such as EMDR or sensorimotor psychotherapy, and treatments for mental health conditions become essential components in the recovery process.

The Impact of Neuroscience Research

Neuroscience research has led the charge in shedding light on the obscure aspects of addiction. Brain imaging, for instance, offers unprecedented insights into the mechanisms underlying addiction and has opened doors to innovative treatments. This research has refined our understanding of neural systems, leading to the development of targeted treatments and a deeper exploration of genetics and biomarkers.8

Advanced techniques like optogenetics and chemogenetics have allowed scientists to test hypotheses about specific brain circuits involved in addiction-related behaviours with unprecedented precision. Genetic research is on the cusp of developing treatments that target specific gene products involved in addiction, promising a future where interventions can be tailored to an individual’s genetic makeup.9

Gene therapies, once the stuff of science fiction, are now being developed to treat addiction by targeting the specific genetic mechanisms at play. Research also keeps pace with the ever-changing landscape of substance use, studying the effects of new substances entering legal and illegal markets to provide a broader understanding of addiction mechanisms.

This relentless pursuit of knowledge not only advances treatment but also plays a crucial role in dismantling the stigma surrounding addiction, showcasing it as a condition that can be understood and treated like any other medical issue.

How the Disease Model Helps in Reducing Stigma

The disease model of addiction acts as a bridge to cross the vast divide of stigma, presenting an alternative way to understand substance dependency. By framing addiction as a neurobiological condition, the model helps reduce the blame placed on individuals for their condition, easing the burden of guilt and shame. This shift in perception can be transformative, not just for those in the throes of addiction but for society’s response to them.

Belief in the biological underpinnings of addiction can foster greater acceptance of treatment and recovery. Public endorsement of the disease model has been shown to increase the likelihood that people will seek help for substance use disorders and believe in the effectiveness of treatment. It is a call to view addiction not as a moral failing but as a medical condition deserving of compassion and comprehensive care.

Managing Relapse in Addiction Recovery

Rather than being a sign of failure, relapse in addiction recovery is a common and anticipated part of the journey, similar to symptom flare-ups in chronic diseases like diabetes. Despite best efforts, relapse rates can be as high as 50% within the first 12 weeks after intensive inpatient programs. Recognising the stages of relapse—emotional, mental, and physical—is crucial in managing this aspect of recovery.

Emotional relapse sets the stage with behaviours like isolation and poor self-care, while mental relapse introduces cravings and justifications for substance use. Physical relapse, the actual resumption of substance use, is the final curtain call, signalling the need for renewed intervention. Prevention strategies typically include a combination of therapy, medication, and monitoring to support ongoing recovery.

Monitoring methods such as urine drug screens and breathalysers, sometimes augmented with skin monitors, offer objective measures to help individuals stay on track. The stages of ongoing recovery—abstinence, repair, and growth—reflect the dynamic nature of addiction, underscoring the need for sustained support and vigilance.

Treatment for Addiction at CATCH Recovery

At CATCH Recovery, we understand the complexities of addiction and the courage it takes to seek help. Our comprehensive therapy programmes are designed to provide you with the tools and support necessary for a successful recovery journey.

Our evidence-based approach to addiction treatment includes:

  • Individual and group therapy sessions to address the psychological aspects of addiction
  • Specialised therapies, including cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), to develop coping strategies
  • Holistic treatments to promote overall well-being, such as mindfulness and exercise therapy
  • Aftercare planning to support long-term sobriety and prevent relapse
  • Referral to inpatient for detoxification under medical supervision to ensure safety and comfort

Our team of addiction specialists will support you throughout the treatment process, from your first call through to aftercare. We believe that with the right care, anyone can overcome addiction and lead a fulfilling life.

If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, don’t hesitate to reach out to us. Contact CATCH Recovery today for a free consultation.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the disease model of addiction?

The disease model of addiction considers addiction as a chronic brain disorder resulting from repeated exposure to addictive substances, involving genetic, neurological, and environmental factors.

How does the disease model of addiction help reduce stigma?

The disease model of addiction reduces stigma by reframing addiction as a neurobiological condition, shifting the focus from moral failings to a medical condition that can be effectively treated. This promotes understanding and acceptance of addiction.

Can addiction be considered a choice?

Addiction can be considered a choice from an alternative perspective that emphasises personal responsibility and the ability of individuals to overcome addiction through their decisions and actions.

What role do genetics play in addiction?

Genetics play a significant role in addiction, accounting for 40-60% of the risk for substance use disorders. Specific genetic variations and environmental factors can also impact an individual’s susceptibility to addiction.

Are relapses a normal part of addiction recovery?

Yes, relapses are a normal part of addiction recovery, and they can be managed through interventions like therapy, and recovery coaching to support abstinence.

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