Understanding the Disease of Addiction

What is addiction?

Addiction is a long-lasting (chronic) disease of the brain. Addiction to substances such as drugs and alcohol may be called substance use disorder. It affects how your brain learns and works. Your genes and your environment can affect your risk for addiction. A family history of addiction also raises your risk. But anyone can have an addiction. Unfortunately, many people falsely think that addiction is a moral weakness. They think that people addicted to drugs or alcohol are just behaving badly or making poor choices.

How does addiction affect my brain?

Whether you start using drugs or alcohol is your choice. But once your brain is exposed to the addictive substance, your brain begins to change. This is especially true if you are more at risk for addiction. These brain changes overpower your self-control. This happens because the substance overexcites the brain’s reward center. The substance mimics the brain's own natural feel-good chemicals. The brain is rewired into believing that the substance is a good thing and that you need it to survive. This rewiring is very strong. Over time, you no longer find pleasure in other things you once enjoyed. The addiction is more powerful.

If you keep using the substance, your brain makes less of its own feel-good chemicals. You then must keep using drugs or alcohol to try to make up for the low levels of the brain chemicals. Over time your brain needs more and more of the drug or alcohol to achieve these levels. You need the drug. You no longer think about the physical, emotional, and social harm it causes.

Can you become addicted to things other than drugs or alcohol?

Addiction can happen in response to other pleasurable things that stimulate the brain’s reward center. These things include eating, having sex, gambling, using tobacco, and using the Internet.

Can you get control over a brain disease?

The only way to get over an addiction is to stop using the substance. Not using it lets your brain recover and go back to its normal functioning. You can relearn how to find pleasure in other things again. But your brain will always be at risk for addiction. Addiction is very powerful. So you often will need ongoing comprehensive medical and psychotherapy help and social support for long-term success.

Addiction is a chronic condition. It’s common for people who are recovering from addiction to start using the substance again (called a relapse). This doesn’t mean that treatment doesn’t work. Just like other chronic health conditions, addiction requires ongoing treatment that changes as the person’s needs change.  

Online Medical Reviewer: L Renee Watson MSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Marianne Fraser MSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Paul Ballas MD
Date Last Reviewed: 6/1/2022
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