What is the Disease Model?
The Disease Model of Addiction Explained

If you’ve been watching someone you love struggle with addiction, it is likely you feel baffled, confused, frustrated and afraid by the behavior you’re witnessing. Your loved one’s behavior probably seems completely irrational. You have most likely watched your loved one face tremendous consequences as the result of their addiction, yet they keep drinking or using. Why won’t they just quit? Why don’t they ask for help? Why can’t they admit their problem? There is an explanation for this: it is the nature of addiction.

How is Addiction Defined?

Addiction is commonly defined as a “chronic relapsing brain disease.” What does this mean? The term “chronic relapsing brain disease” originated in a scientific article published by the former director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and a leading neurologist in the field of addiction treatment, Alan I. Leshner. In his neurological studies, he found that after a habitual pattern has been formed, the brain of an addict or alcoholic fires differently than that of a normal person. The brain comes to treat the need for drugs and alcohol in a similar way it does other survival instincts. As this instinct strengthens over time, creating stronger neural pathways, the brain comes to actually prioritize its need for drugs or alcohol above other survival instincts, including those for food, sex and shelter. This is why addicts and alcoholics often will go to any lengths to keep their addictions alive, even becoming homeless and hungry. The addict’s brain has essentially been hijacked by their addiction. The condition, however, can be treated. According to another leading scientist studying addiction treatment, Dr. Nora Volkow, there is hope.

“Over the past three decades, a scientific consensus has emerged that addiction is a chronic but treatable medical condition involving changes to circuits involved in reward, stress, and self-control; this has helped researchers to identify neurobiological abnormalities that can be targeted with therapeutic intervention,” Volkow writes.

Similarly The American Society of Addiction Medicine defines addiction as “a treatable, chronic medical disease involving complex interactions among brain circuits, genetics, the environment, and an individual’s life experiences.“

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How Alcoholics Anonymous Defines Addiction

In addition to science-based clinical therapies, Immersion Recovery Center’s treatment methodology includes 12-Step immersion. The 12-Steps are a program of action first outlined by Alcoholics Anonymous. The Steps have been recognized by research as one of the most effective treatments for addiction. So how does AA define addiction?

AA echoes the Disease Model in its definition of addiction. AA defines alcoholism as a “three-fold illness” consisting of a physical allergy, a mental obsession and a spiritual malady. What does AA mean by this?

The Three Components of Addiction According to AA:

  1. Physical Allergy — AA believes that the body of an addict or alcoholic reacts differently to substances than a normal person. When an addicted individual partakes in their drug of choice, a physical craving beyond their control kicks in, compelling them to keep drinking or using.
  2. Mental Obsession — The mind lies to an addicted individual. Left untreated, the brain of an addict or alcoholic will always tell the individual that it is ok to drink or use. It makes excuses such as “It will be different this time.” “If I only drink wine, I’ll be fine.” “I’ll use just this once, then I’ll stop.” The brain of the addict or alcoholic manipulates the individual, convincing them to drink or use.
  3. Spiritual Malady — AA acknowledges that alcoholism and addiction often stem from spiritual sickness — meaning an individual’s spirit has been wounded in some way. There are common traits most addicts and alcoholics suffer from — they are often restless, irritable and discontent when sober without a program of recovery. Any successful addiction treatment program will need to heal a person spiritually and emotionally, as well as physically and mentally.

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How Immersion Defines Addiction

Immersion’s Clinical Philosophy:

At Immersion we have come to understand that addicts suffer from the mental obsession to use drugs, alcohol, and engage in other destructive behaviors. We define obsession as recurring, persistent thoughts that supersede, and do not respond to reason. Without a program of recovery, an addict will always be on the losing end of an internal negotiation to make good decisions around their addictive behaviors.

Untreated addiction is characterized by restlessness, irritability and discontent (RID), coupled with anxiety and frustration with the world at large. Abstinence alone is not recovery, as abstinence in the absence of a recovery program will inevitably lead back to active use.

The primary physical symptom of addiction is an abnormal reaction to mind and mood altering substances. We identify this as an allergy called the Phenomenon of Craving. This is an inward, overwhelming compulsion to use more substances once the first drug or drink is ingested. Very simply put: “Once I start, I cannot stop.” Or, “Once I start, I have very little control over what happens next.”

The Phenomenon of Craving is a distinct, pronounced, physiological reaction to the “first one” that is entirely unique to those that suffer from addictive disease. This abnormal reaction to drugs and alcohol is terminal, meaning there is no known cure. A period of abstinence does not remove this physical trait as addicts will find an inability to control their use even after a long period of sobriety.

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Addiction is a progressive disorder. Over any considerable period of time of active use, an addict’s life will deteriorate rather than improve. Addiction progresses by changing the chemistry of the brain; and increasingly compromising areas of the psychic apparatus that mediate choice, reason, accountability and satisfaction. The brain ultimately becomes diseased and can no longer be relied upon to act in its own defense.

Addiction becomes a cycle of anger, depression, boredom and anxiety driving an addict to seek ease and comfort. An addict that has achieved abstinence may gravitate towards other negative behaviors first before returning to active substance use. These behaviors often include gambling, unhealthy sexual behaviors, disordered eating, compulsive exercise and spending, as well as entering into volatile romantic relationships and excessively working. Invariably, an addict will return to drugs and alcohol thereby triggering the Phenomenon of Craving.

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    Addicts suffer significant internal and external consequences. Virtually all facets of an addict’s life will become unmanageable as the relationship with drugs and alcohol becomes paramount to everything else. Unmanageability will also stem from decisions made by an addict in times of abstinence. We do not discount the wreckage that can be created by “dry drunks.” Most of our clients have considerable consequences in both their personal and professional lives. Mismanagement of money and financial ruin are the norm. Many clients have had legal issues and are facing serious consequences if they are not able to find recovery. Chronic use will lead to co-occurring medical issues that are often serious and can be fatal if not addressed.

    Recovery Is Possible

    At Immersion Recovery Center we believe addiction is a treatable disease of the body, mind, and spirit. Alcoholics and addicts can live free from the mental obsession to use, thereby eliminating the devastating consequences associated with taking the “first one.” Successful recovery is a lifelong process, centered in total abstinence from mind/mood altering chemicals and the ongoing application of recovery practices. A strong foundation is built at Immersion Recovery Center through rapid immersion into the 12 Steps and active engagement in clinical therapy.

    If you or your loved one is suffering from addiction, there is hope. At Immersion Recovery Center we use evidence-based recovery methods that really work. To learn more about our programs, please reach out. We are available 24/7.

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