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Understanding Addiction as a Disease: A Guide for Friends and Family

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* Updated – May 2024 *

If you have a loved one who struggles with substance use, you might have wondered what triggers the behavior. Is it a choice? Genes? Many friends and family members struggle to understand addiction, believing it results from a lack of willpower or moral failing. Knowing the science makes understanding easier. Researchers have confirmed that addiction has nothing to do with morality or willpower. Organizations such as the American Society of Addiction Medicine confirm it is a treatable medical disease that involves a combination of biological, genetic, and environmental causes.

Here’s what you need to know to be a more empathetic, supportive, and effective support team for loved ones struggling with substance use disorders.

The Science Behind the Disease Model of Addiction

Substances such as alcohol, drugs, and even certain behaviors profoundly impact brain chemistry. In effect, they hijack the brain’s reward system. When a person takes a substance, the brain releases dopamine, a “feel good” chemical that rewards certain behaviors. This boost subliminally encourages more of those behaviors, whether the user knows it or not.

Over time, the brain’s ability to produce dopamine naturally is diminished, leading to dependency. What friends and family see as drug-seeking behavior is really an addicted person’s reaction to a chemical imbalance in the brain. When loved ones say they need drugs to “feel normal,” they’re not necessarily lying. Without treatment to restore their natural dopamine production, they are physically dependent on drugs. Certain substances provide up to ten times the normal amount of dopamine, intensifying the feelings of withdrawal when drugs are no longer available.

Why It’s Important to Understand Addiction as a Disease

For decades, substance use disorders carried a heavy stigma. People saw drug use as a choice, and this affected how they treated those who became addicted. Only by recognizing addiction as an illness can friends and family understand the physical and mental challenges of recovery.

Understanding the science of addiction can also help save lives. The withdrawal symptoms of some substances, from heroin to alcohol, can be severe enough to warrant hospitalization. These drugs require medical assistance through detox to avoid health complications.

Understanding addiction as a disease can also help friends and family understand recovery as a process. The brain needs time to heal, and as it does, loved ones need to show patience and support. As part of someone’s support system, having knowledge of the science behind addiction can help you identify potential triggers for relapse, assist in an intervention, and be more empathetic about the challenges of recovery.

How Friends and Family Can Support Loved Ones Through Addiction

Friends and family can support loved ones through addiction in several ways. Simply showing concern, encouragement, and empathy without judgment goes a long way. If you can take a more active role, consider these suggestions.

  • Take care of your own mental health. Addiction can be emotionally challenging for a family. Practicing self-care can help you remain in a frame of mind that allows for openness, love, and patience.
  • Educate Yourself. Learn about addiction and its effects on the brain and behavior. Understanding its complexities can better prepare you to offer informed support.
  • Encourage Treatment. Gently encourage your loved one to seek professional help, such as counseling, support groups, or rehabilitation programs.
  • Consider your loved one’s whole health. Encourage a mental health evaluation to identify potential co-occurring disorders, such as depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), that can complicate substance abuse recovery.
  • Set Healthy Boundaries. Establishing and maintaining clear boundaries is essential to protect your own well-being while supporting your loved one.
  • Suggest family therapy sessions. Counseling can be beneficial for everyone.
  • Offer Emotional Support. Be a source of encouragement and compassion. Recovery is a long-term process, and having a supportive network can significantly aid in this journey.

Groups such as Nar-Anon and Al-Anon can also be helpful. These free support groups provide a community for the friends and family of loved ones who are using drugs or alcohol. Through relationships with others who are experiencing the same things, you can find comfort, solace, and support.

How to Conduct an Intervention

Finally, you should know when it is appropriate to stage an intervention and how to hold an effective one. Sometimes, those who struggle with addiction simply need to feel supported in the decision to seek help. To have a productive intervention, be sure that the meeting is coming from that place of love.

Consider getting outside help from a professional for your intervention. Inviting someone emotionally removed from the situation can help to maintain a healthy conversation if things escalate. An expert can also help lead the discussion in a productive direction.

It is also important to go into an intervention with a plan. Know what you will say and be prepared for your loved one to decline your help or become upset. Limiting the number of people involved can help prevent your loved one from feeling ambushed.


Fighting addiction is hard. You can better help family and friends struggling with substance use disorders by first recognizing that addiction is a disease. Knowing the science behind how some substances affect the brain can help you remain empathetic, patient, and supportive throughout the recovery journey.

Approaching addiction as a disease can significantly shift how we perceive and address it. With the right support and understanding, those affected by addiction can take meaningful steps towards recovery and reclaiming their lives. Educating ourselves and our communities about the nature of addiction is the first step in fostering a more compassionate and supportive environment for everyone affected by this challenging condition.


If you or someone you know experiences mental health issues, it is important to seek help from a qualified professional. Our Resource Specialist can help you find expert mental health resources to recover in your community. Contact us now for more information on this free service to our users.


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About the Author: Dr. Barbara Rexer, DSW, LCSW, LCADC, CCS, ICCS, DRCC, is the Executive Director of Advanced Health & Education, a treatment facility of Sprout Health Group.

The opinions and views expressed in any guest blog post do not necessarily reflect those of www.rtor.org or its sponsor, Laurel House, Inc. The author and www.rtor.org have no affiliations with any products or services mentioned in the article or linked to therein. Guest Authors may have affiliations to products mentioned or linked to in their author bios only.

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