Understanding Addiction as a Chronic Disease

image of brain and receptors - chronic diseaseUnfortunately, graduating from residential treatment doesn’t mean your substance use disorder has been cured. Addiction is considered a chronic disease, which means the condition must be continually managed to reduce the risk of relapse.

The Chronic Nature of Addiction

Chronic diseases are much more common than you might expect. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), six in 10 US adults live with at least one chronic disease. Other examples of chronic diseases include diabetes, heart disease, and asthma.

Addiction is a chronic disease because prolonged substance abuse alters the brain’s reward system to trigger biological and behavioral responses related to the abused substance. Additionally, changes to the frontal cortex of the brain alter impulse control and judgment.

This means:

  • Genes account for about half of a person’s risk of developing an addiction.
  • Addiction is not caused by a lack of willpower.
  • People do not choose to become addicted to drugs or alcohol.
  • Changes in the brain mean a person will want to use despite the harmful consequences.
  • A person is still vulnerable to relapse even after an extended period of sobriety.
  • Ignoring the recommendations of care providers or becoming complacent about treatment is likely to lead to relapse.
  • The actions of friends and family members aren’t enough to keep the person sober.

The Value of Evidenced-Based Addiction Treatment

Every person with a substance use disorder is unique, which means treatment plans must be personalized to fit individual circumstances. However, there are some common types of treatment shown to be the most effective.

Evidence-based addiction treatment typically begins with a medically managed detox to safely rid the body of the abused substance. This is followed by cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) in both group and individual settings. CBT helps individuals recognize and avoid the situations in which they are most likely to want to drink or use drugs while they cope with problems that may be contributing to their substance abuse.

For individuals with opioid addiction, medication-assisted treatment (MAT) is often recommended as a way to cope with cravings and reduce the severity of withdrawal symptoms. In some cases, MAT may be recommended for people who are in treatment for alcohol addiction.

Holistic addiction treatments, including yoga, meditation, and art or music therapy, have gained popularity in recent years. These treatments haven’t been as extensively studied as CBT, but the existing research suggests they can often be a vital part of treatment by encouraging individuals to take an active role in their own recovery.

Self-Care Strategies for Managing Addiction

Lifestyle modifications are recommended for many types of chronic illnesses. Self-care strategies that are helpful for people with substance use disorders include:

  • Eat a balanced diet. A diet that includes whole grains, lean protein, and plenty of fruits and vegetables helps the body heal from past damage related to substance abuse and helps to prevent mood swings that can trigger cravings.
  • Exercise regularly. Physical activity releases endorphins, which naturally improves your mood. Aim for at least 30 minutes of exercise per day, combining cardio and strength training activities for the best results. Exercise outdoors when possible, since time spent in nature offers additional mood-boosting benefits.
  • Practice good sleep hygiene. The vast majority of adults do not get the sleep their body needs, which can lead to fatigue as well as irritability, cognitive impairment, and mood swings. For someone living with a substance use disorder, this greatly increases the risk of relapse. Practicing good sleep hygiene by setting a consistent bedtime, creating a comfortable sleeping environment, and avoiding caffeine in the afternoon or evening hours can help you get the rest you need.
  • Develop strong social connections. Loneliness and boredom are common triggers for relapse, but both factors can be managed by creating a network of supportive friends and family. Self-help groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous or SMART Recovery can also help add to your sober support network.
  • Find constructive ways to deal with stress and negative emotions. Often, substance abuse serves as a way for people to cope with stressful situations or unpleasant emotions such as anger or sadness. Finding healthier ways to cope is an essential part of the recovery process. This might include writing in a journal, expressing feelings through art and music, or turning to spiritual practices for inner strength.

Relapse and Recovery

Sine addiction is considered a chronic illness, relapse is often part of the recovery process. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, as many as 60% of patients who receive substance abuse treatment will relapse within one year.

Experiencing a relapse can be frustrating, but it doesn’t mean that recovery is impossible. Just as a diabetic must often try several different approaches to managing blood sugar levels, a person with a substance use disorder must often try several different treatments before finding a combination that works for their unique needs.

At St. Joseph Institute for Addiction’s Pennsylvania drug and alcohol treatment center, we provide a full continuum of care for men and women with substance use disorders. This includes relapse prevention and aftercare services designed to support the transition back to independent living. No matter what challenges you’ve faced in the past, we’re committed to helping you create the foundation for lasting sobriety.

To learn more about SJI addiction treatment center in Pennsylvania, and our programs, please contact us at (888) 352-3297.