About addiction

The most important thing to understand is that it is a disease.

This can be hard to accept. We care deeply about a loved one, but we see patterns of behavior that are baffling and scary. We fear for their safety and maybe for our own.

We see somebody we may not know. Somebody doing bad, even dangerous things. We can’t understand why they don’t stop using even when life is falling apart.

We wonder what we did wrong and we might feel angry. And we have no idea how to fix it.

These confusing behaviors are symptoms of the disease of addiction. Addiction isn’t a lack of willpower or a moral failing. It’s a serious illness that makes people very sick, affecting the brain and behavior.

Icon of light bulb

What science says

  • Addiction affects the brain so it has a significant impact on behavior.
  • Some people are more vulnerable to developing addiction.
  • Addictive substances shortcut the natural reward system of the brain.
  • Once addiction develops, the brain sends powerful urges to use substances, similar to the need for food and water.
  • Substance use is just one symptom of addiction, along with many others.
  • The changes in the brain erode decision-making and self-control.
  • The changes also explain the impulsive, destructive and often baffling behavior by those with addiction.

What is addiction?

Addiction is recognized as a disease by all of the nation’s leading medical and health organizations. 

Here's the official definition of addiction from the American Society for Addiction Medicine:

"Addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. Dysfunction in these circuits leads to characteristic biological, psychological, social and spiritual manifestations. This is reflected in an individual pathologically pursuing reward and/or relief by substance use and other behaviors.

Addiction is characterized by inability to consistently abstain, impairment in behavioral control, craving, diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviors and interpersonal relationships, and a dysfunctional emotional response. Like other chronic diseases, addiction often involves cycles of relapse and remission. Without treatment or engagement in recovery activities, addiction is progressive and can result in disability or premature death."

See the full definition

Icon of a stethoscope

A chronic disease

Addiction is a chronic illness, similar to type II diabetes, heart disease and asthma.

  • Chronic diseases are long-lasting conditions that can be controlled but not cured.
  • Most can be effectively managed with proper treatment and support.
  • They're usually caused and influenced by a combination personal, family, environmental and genetic factors.
  • Treatment is complex and often long term because of the nature of these illnesses.
  • Management usually requires significant changes in lifestyle and behavior, such as diet, exercise or substance use.
  • Recurrence is somewhat common for all chronic diseases, with rates of relapse about the same.