Is Addiction Really a Bad Habit?
There is a constant, heavy debate regarding whether addiction is a disease or a habit. An editorial posted by The New York Times recently suggests that addiction is simply “a bad habit that can be learned and unlearned.”
This is an incredibly poor choice of words that oversimplifies the complex struggle that is addiction. While there is research that suggests that addiction is not necessarily a genetic inheritance, the author of the article has cherry-picked research that supports his belief that addiction is merely a habit that can be changed like any other.
He believes that addiction is a simple matter of habitually focusing your attention on one goal, such as the pleasure of a high, and not realizing there are other, more productive alternate goals. This is one viewpoint, but his assessment certainly fails to tell the whole story.
Is Addiction an Inevitable Disease?
There is a lot of talk about “addiction genes,” which makes it sound like addiction is as immutable as the color of your eyes or whether you are a Type 1 diabetic. This is not the case.
When “addiction genes” are talked about, it is in the context of overall biological differences that can make a person more susceptible to addiction. These differences do not determine whether or not you will become an addict, but they are red flags that mean you should be more cautious.
For example, some people are born with fewer or less responsive dopamine receptors. Dopamine signals are what allow us to feel pleasure, so these people tend to be more vulnerable to compulsive behaviors and addiction.
To say that addiction is primarily genetic takes away any sense of personal responsibility, which can hinder recovery.
Addiction is More Than a “Bad Habit”
In that same vein, it is inappropriate to say that addiction is simply a bad habit that a person can choose to learn and unlearn at will. That cheapens and glosses over much of the mental turmoil that addiction causes, and it also incorrectly makes things like addiction treatment sound wasteful or unnecessary.
The argument for this centers mostly around the idea that our brains are able to constantly grow and change, which is a trait known as neuroplasticity. While this is true, it does not take into account many of the things that drive a person to addictive substances in the first place, such as trauma, mental illness or environmental circumstances.
Nobody sets out with the goal of becoming an addict. A person does not consciously choose to form a habit of drinking or abusing drugs to the detriment of everything else. The word “habit” implies conscious, deliberate choice, and that is not an accurate representation of addiction.
It is true that your brain will become physiologically altered as addictive behaviors are reinforced, but nobody should suggest that overcoming addiction is as simple as “willing yourself to change” or “unlearning a habit.”
Should Addiction Be Professionally Treated?
The author of the NYT editorial suggests that addicts should merely “modify their environments” in order to remove temptation and undermine their old habits. This is called “self-programming,” and while it sounds good on paper, it’s often not so cut-and-dry for an addict.
It’s true that removing yourself from tempting situations is a positive step towards recovery, but that is rarely enough to truly start your journey to sobriety. This is especially true of addictions to substances like alcohol, benzodiazepines and cocaine because the withdrawal symptoms can be severe and medically dangerous if managed alone.
Medically assisted detox has been proven to help addicts recover more quickly and completely, and it lowers the risk of relapse in many cases. Aside from the medical benefits, a meta-study of recovering addicts noted that having consistent support from recovering peers plays a major part in long-term recovery. This includes, but is not limited to, groups that employ a 12-step program.
The same study showed that those who had been a part of a formal rehab program were much more likely to stay abstinent over the long-term than those who went untreated.
Addiction Recovery is Complex
Don’t be discouraged if you hear addiction talked about as a habit to be unlearned. The subject of addiction is personal, and recovery is a unique journey for everyone. Remember that you are not alone, and know that it’s okay to seek addiction treatment. If you or a loved one are in need of help, contact Springboard Recovery today.