If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction, you may feel ashamed or that it’s your fault, but the truth is that addiction, otherwise known as substance use disorder (SUD), is a chronic disease. The truth is that people do not choose how their brain and body respond to drugs or alcohol, which is why people struggling with addiction cannot control their use while others can—even when they start to see negative consequences of their drinking or drug use.

Even though the choice to begin using drugs or alcohol was your own, addiction is a disease caused by a combination of behavioral, psychological,  biological, and environmental factors. Addiction is a disease that can happen to anyone without warning. It is a complex disease that involves the compulsive use of substances despite negative health and social consequences.

The American Medical Association (AMA) classified addiction as a disease in 1987. In 2011, the American Association of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) joined the AMA in defining addiction as a chronic brain disorder, not a behavior problem or the result of making poor choices.

What Is a Chronic Disease?

A disease is a condition that changes the way an organ functions. Chronic disease is a disease that can be treated and managed but cannot be cured. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) define chronic diseases as “conditions that last one year or more and require ongoing medical attention or limit activities of daily living or both.” Examples of common chronic diseases are cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and arthritis. SUD is a chronic disease because it changes the brain’s structure and the way it functions.

How Does Addiction Develop?

SUD happens when substance use becomes an uncontrollable habit that impacts your day-to-day life, showing up as struggles at work or school, conflicts in relationships, and legal and financial issues. Like other chronic diseases, such as heart disease and diabetes, experts are still learning how and why SUD develops.

How Does Addiction Change the Brain?

Substance use interferes with your brain’s communication system and changes the way nerve cells send, receive, and process information. It re-wires the brain and changes its structure. The brain’s reward system activates when we do things that make us feel good, releasing the “feel-good” chemical, dopamine.

Just like hugging a loved one or eating your favorite food releases dopamine, so does using substances, which is why they temporarily make you feel good. Because dopamine teaches the brain to repeat the behaviors that make us feel good, it is easy to want to continue to do these things, like eating our favorite food or using substances. These mental cues trigger the reward system, fuel cravings, and can create a habit loop that can lead to addiction.

When you use substances, your brain releases a significant amount of dopamine. Because of this, your brain overreacts and cuts back on natural dopamine production. As you continue to use these substances, your body will produce less and less dopamine, making things that once made you feel good unable to anymore. Once you become addicted, it also begins to take more and more of the substance to reach the same amount of pleasure the substance once gave you.

How Else Does Addiction Affect the Brain?

In addition to changing the way our brain’s reward system works, addiction can also change the area of the brain in charge of judgment, learning and memory, decision making, and behavioral control. Once substance use changes your brain, your willpower changes, too. If you try to quit using substances, your brain will try to protect you from the intense pain of withdrawal symptoms. Addiction feeds your brain’s response to do whatever it takes to stop the cravings and discomfort.

Furthermore, the consequences of untreated addiction often include other physical and mental health disorders that require attention. If left untreated over time, addiction becomes more severe, disabling, and even life-threatening.

How Can I Manage My Addiction?

It may have been disheartening to read that SUD cannot be cured, but it’s important to focus on the fact that it can be managed. People with SUD have the ability to stop using; they just have a more challenging time doing so.

It’s important to remember that people with SUD should not be blamed for having a disease, but rather should be able to get quality, evidence-based care to address it. With the help of medical and mental health professionals and the support of family, friends, and peers, getting treatment gives those in need a good chance of recovery. The good news is that help is available.

Finding the right treatment center for you or someone you care about can be an overwhelming experience, but knowing that treatment is available can be comforting. If you are ready to start managing your addiction, there are many options for you, including both residential treatment centers and outpatient programs. Here at Bella Monte Recovery Center in Desert Hot Springs, California, we offer a residential treatment program designed to create a solid foundation for a successful recovery from substance use disorders and other mental health issues. In our approach to treating addiction, we stress that drug or alcohol use is not the problem but rather a symptom of the emotional pain caused by unresolved trauma and untreated mental health issues. We work to heal the whole person in body, mind, and spirit. If you’re ready to start your recovery journey, call (800) 974-1938 to learn more.