The Disease Model of Addiction: What is It?

Aside from neurological, biological, and environmental, there are a lot of factors that contribute to the disease model of addiction. Find out how addiction works below.

What is The Disease Model of Addiction?

In 1956, the American Medical Association voted that addiction is, in fact, a disease, a treatable illness. Later this would go on to include drug addiction too.

Considering addiction as a disease means there are medical factors that contribute to the problem. There can be biological, neurological, and environmental factors that contribute to the addiction. For some, there are multiple factors, not just one affecting their disease model of addiction.

If addiction causes problems in your life, you may have what is considered the disease of addiction.

You may be thinking; addiction is a behavior people choose to do, and if they wanted to quit using, they could—only a small part of this statement that is true, however. The initial choice to experiment with drugs or alcohol is the only time a person can prevent addiction.

Once they choose to use drugs or alcohol or both, it becomes a brain disease.

No one sets out to become an addict. And those who become addicts do not enjoy the control a substance has over their lives. If they could quit, they would. Each addict needs a treatment team to address the biological, environmental, and neurological factors contributing to their addiction.

Neurological Factors of Addiction

Every brain is designed with neurotransmitters or happy chemicals released and distributed throughout your body. Chemicals like serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins link, making you feel better.

Serotonin is typically associated with decreasing depression, endorphins are your body’s natural pain relievers, and dopamine helps us feel rewarded. When naturally released, the happy chemicals make us feel good.

When someone takes drugs or drinks alcohol, the happy chemicals are increased and make you feel great. Drugs like heroin instruct the brain to release hundreds of times more dopamine than it would naturally.

Because so much more of the happy chemicals are released, and because you feel good from head to toe, your brain begins desiring more. At this point, your brain is hijacked by addiction. It will do whatever it takes to get you to use more so it can feel good again.

The Power of the Brain

Addicts will tell you they do not want to use drugs or drink alcohol anymore, but they cannot stop. They are telling the truth. Their brain will not let them stop. Their brain keeps them continually seeking a fix so they can feel good again.

The brain encourages an addict to behave compulsively. For example, if money is lying around the home, and the brain wants to get high, it will enable the addict to steal the money. Other compulsive behaviors include lying, cheating, pawning items for cash, and participating in activities considered shameful and dangerous to non-addicts.

If the addict tries to quit using drugs or alcohol, the brain retaliates and causes severe withdrawal symptoms. The brain will do whatever it can to feel good again, even if that means making you have seizures, tremors, vomiting, nausea, and severe flu-like symptoms.

Now that you know this, you can understand why “just quitting” is not possible. Instead, addicts must go through a process that includes getting sober, learning how to live a sober life, and continued care to prevent relapse. When any of these steps are skipped, relapse is more likely to happen.

Biological Factors in the Disease Model of Addiction

The disease model of addiction recognizes factors out of a person’s control that can contribute to whether a person becomes an addict. Genetics is one example. If your ancestors, immediate or distant, have genes related to addiction, they can be passed down to you.

Another biological factor is mental illness. Suppose you already suffer from a mental health disorder like anxiety, depression, ADHD, PTSD, or bipolar. In that case, you may have a higher chance of becoming an addict if you start experimenting with drugs or alcohol.

Furthermore, gender and the stage of development in which you are in at the time of first use can play a role in biological disease model of addiction.

Environmental Factors of Addiction

Your environment is included in the disease model of addiction, and includes where you live, work and the people who surround you in those areas. What takes place in your environment can influence you to try drugs or alcohol, possibly to cope with negativity. For example, if you live in a home where verbal or physical abuse takes place, you may be more likely to experiment with substances as a way to feel better.

Peer pressure is another factor. If everyone else in your life drinks or uses drugs, you may feel pressured to do the same. While peer pressure mostly takes place during the teenage years, it can happen in adulthood also.

If you become accustomed to watching everyone else in your life use drugs or alcohol, you may not even realize it is an unhealthy way to live.

Stress happens to everyone daily. Depending on your perceived stress levels, though, you may seek ways to cope that include drugs or alcohol. Temporarily, this plan may work. But long-term use of substances will cause more significant stress physically and emotionally.

More Risk Factors of Addiction

Aside from neurological, biological, and environmental, a few more factors contribute to the disease model of addiction. One is the type of drug you use. Some drugs, like heroin, lead to addiction much quicker than marijuana, for example.

Another factor is how you use the drug. It is known that injecting a drug, rather than snorting or smoking, directly into your veins leads to a quicker high, but also a quicker need to use again and again to reach that high.


A final factor applies to those who have gotten sober but can’t remain sober due to not having the right addiction treatment and recovery plan. If you work hard to detox, make sure you continue learning how to avoid relapse, build a positive support system, and make sobriety a priority.

Although you may have any or all of the risk factors above, you can still get sober and live a long, happy life in recovery.


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