Treating Addiction as a Matter of Will Power

People who treat addiction or alcoholism as a matter of will-power will be disappointed nearly 100% of the time. In fact, this type of thinking is one of the most damaging forces in the advancement of addiction treatment methodologies and their greater acceptance by the general public. However, even people who understand that addiction is a legitimate clinical disease like any other often subconsciously discriminate against addicts via stereotypical thoughts. This is because – for those who have never experienced addiction – it can be difficult to comprehend that in many cases it is practically impossible for an addict to stop using on their own. Nevertheless, there is substantial evidence to support the fact that addiction is anything but a matter of will-power.

One of the most compelling reasons to believe that addiction isn’t about lack of will-power is related to genetics. For decades scientists have sought to explain and quantify publicly the relationship between genetics and addiction or alcoholism. These genetic links are complex and highly individualized, but work just like genetics for any other disease or condition:

“Some diseases, like sickle cell anemia or cystic fibrosis, are caused by an error in a single gene. Medical research has been strikingly successful at unraveling the mechanisms of these single-gene disorders. However, most diseases, including addiction, are more complicated: variations in many different genes contribute to an individual’s overall level of risk or resistance.” (1)

Additionally, the relationship between genetics and addiction can be readily seen in many families with multiple multi-generational drug addicts or alcoholics; this suggests that genetics are at work in the same way that genetics would be largely responsible for a family history of heart disease.

Another solid argument against the idea that addiction is a matter of will-power is related to animals and the fact that they can become easily and hopelessly addicted to a variety of substances:

“Decades ago, researchers first tested laboratory strains of rats and mice for specific addiction traits, such as high preference for certain drugs or alcohol. Since individuals within a laboratory strain are virtually identical, they all have the same addiction profile. But researchers discovered that individuals from different strains had vastly different addiction profiles. This was one of the earliest clues that addiction has a genetic component.” (2)

The logical conclusion to this argument is that if genetics are involved, then addiction is not simply about will-power. But there is even more to the story of addiction than genetics.

The general stereotype of addicts and alcoholics consists of a vagrant or transient person with little to no income and a troubled past. And while many of these types of individuals fall victim to substance abuse and drug addiction, many more do not. Additionally, addiction is in the public eye every day in the form of celebrities, politicians and other powerful people fighting – and sometimes losing – battles with drug dependence or alcoholism. This indicates that addiction is a disease that can affect anyone. This includes people in the health care industry – the front lines in the fight against diseases like addiction.

In a blog post about his addiction during 16 years as a dentist, an unidentified Dallas man writes:

“If there is anyone reading this who is shocked by what I’m saying, you should and shouldn’t be. Yes, the idea that your doctors, your dentists, and your caregivers could be managing your health and battling dangerous addictions at the same time is quite shocking. But the idea itself that medical professionals are just as susceptible to drug addiction as the rest of the population should hardly shock anybody.” (3)

By definition, will-power is an attribute of the mind. By contrast, drug addiction and alcoholism are physiological conditions and thus the two cannot be related. For instance, it’s not possible to prevent cancer or diabetes simply by sheer will-power. This can be best understood by examining the three stages of addiction. Let’s assume the person in question is a chronic back pain patient:

  • The patient is provided with prescription painkillers to make life bearable.
  • The patient quickly develops a tolerance to the pills.
  • More pills or higher doses are required over time to control the same amount of pain.
  • Presence of the drug in the patient’s system becomes “normal,” and physical dependence sets in
  • With consistent use, outright addiction occurs

This scenario actually happens quite often in managed care communities for the elderly, and in most cases their doctors would argue that the resulting addiction from a chronic pain management program had nothing to do with will power.

The ultimate fact of the matter is that addiction is a clinical, progressive neurological disease that must be treated using very specific methodologies. This is because as a neurological disease, the cravings and drug seeking behavior exhibited by drug addicts are a symptom of the condition and not a matter of will-power.

In an article for the New York Times, Daniel Goleman writes:

“. . . have captured images of the brains of addicts in the throes of craving for a drug, revealing the neural basis for addiction. The finding caps a decade or more of intensive brain research seeking the grail of substance abuse, the neurological circuitry that compels addicts to pursue the next fix. And the discovery confirms a number of emerging scientific hunches about the neurology of addiction.” (4)

If one could argue that a neurological disease like addiction is a matter of will power, then one could also argue that diseases like bipolar and schizophrenia could be controlled or eliminated simply by willing it so. Logical people know this isn’t the case, and people who have experienced addiction first hand know that even the most powerful, commanding and in-control people in the world can and do fall victim to addiction.

If you or someone you love is fighting this struggle, reach out to us now for a free, confidential consultation. We’re here 24 hours per day and can help you no matter where you are. Please call the number at the top of your screen right now.


(1) National Institute on Drug Abuse Genetics of Addiction
Accessed 09/27/2011

(2) Rogers, Scott Ph.D. Mouse Models for Addiction Learn Gentics – Genetic Science Learning Center
Accessed 09/27/2011

(3) Narconon Drug Addiction Can Happen to Anyone You Know. Even Your Dentist. JULY 21, 2011
Accessed 09/27/2011

(4) Goleman, Daniel Brain Images Of Addiction In Action Show Its Neural Basis August 13, 1996

Accessed 09/27/2011

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