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Disease Model of Addiction and Recovery Implications

A. Tom Horvath, Ph.D., ABPP, Kaushik Misra, Ph.D., Amy K. Epner, Ph.D., and Galen Morgan Cooper, Ph.D. , edited by C. E. Zupanick, Psy.D.

The disease and biological theories of addiction are very similar. However, the disease model of addiction highlights the differences between people with the disease, and those without it. In contrast, the biological model focuses on the genetic risk for developing the "disease" of addiction.

According to the disease model, addiction is a brain disease. It is characterized by altered brain structure and functioning. These brain abnormalities cause persons with this disease to become addicted to substances or activities, once exposure to these substances or activities occurs. This model considers addiction irreversible once acquired.

Recovery consists of developing and maintaining complete abstinence from all addictive substances and activities. Abstinence arrests the disease. Once arrested, it remains dormant. Because complete abstinence is difficult to achieve, the disease model emphasizes the importance of peer group support. Research shows that peer support is helpful in the recovering from many diseases and disorders. For instance, cancer support groups provide hope to people struggling with cancer. Cancer survivors share with the group their personal experiences of the disease and of recovery. Similarly, addicts and alcoholics support each other in groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous. They share their personal experiences of addiction and recovery and provide hope and inspiration to each other. When people support each other in this manner, they become more hopeful. Therefore, they are more motivated to take the necessary steps toward recovery.

Questions for personal reflection from disease theory: Is it possible that I have an abnormality in my brain that is causing my addiction? Even if I don't think I have a disease, wouldn't it be helpful to talk with other people who have these problems? I'm sure I can learn something from them. Haven't I noticed that my reaction to this substance or activity is not typical for most people? Maybe I need to make adjustments in my behavior that other people do not.