What Causes Addiction North Jersey Recovery Center - A young man sits with a professional and experienced psychiatrist to determine what the cause of his addictions are and the best treatment plan for him based on his addiction needs and requirements

What Causes Addiction?

Last Updated: May 9th 2022

Reviewed by Laura Riley

Like so many whose lives have been affected by substance abuse, it’s common to wonder what causes addiction to develop. Understanding the underlying causes of addiction, and how quickly dependence can happen, is useful and can even be life-saving. However, substance use, abuse, tolerance, and dependence are very individual circumstances and typically vary somewhat between different people. 

How to Define Addiction

Addiction is about more than just the cycle of substance abuse and cravings in between. Addiction is a disease. It is a lifestyle that has been developed to revolve around substances that alter biological functions. Also, addiction is a family illness that affects more than just the addict, but also everyone around them. Addiction is confusing and has many paths that lead there. But, thankfully, individuals can get the help they need to end substance abuse in their lives.

Doctors and professionals define this condition as a chronic disease triggered by excessive use of drugs, medications, alcohol, or behaviors. Addiction is an intricate and complex disease. One that relies on the physical, emotional, and psychological characteristics of a person, in combination with life experience. Realistically, each person will have different experiences and causes of addiction. Yet the impact of substance abuse on the brain and body have definitive and harmful biological similarities. 

Although what causes addiction may be a difficult question to answer, what helps is much more specific. Professional therapy and rehab programs are designed with each person’s differences in mind. The function is to interfere with the cycle of active addiction while setting long-term goals as a community. 

Understanding Addiction Encourages The Choice To Get Sober

causes of substance abuseLearning the potential causes of addiction helps to better understand the struggle that comes with substance abuse. This opens the door for communication and support, which is often much needed during a difficult and vulnerable time. Getting treatment or asking for help is not always the easiest, but rehab offers professional care that supports long-term recovery. 

Most of the time, substance abuse and intoxication are ways to hide from emotional pain. Many addicts confess feeling burdened with intense pressure and overwhelmed by the strain of everyday life. Some are even trying to forget and escape, plagued with traumatic memories and significant emotional distress. Convinced that there are no other options, and nowhere else to turn, drugs and alcohol fill the void. 

Part of understanding the causes of addiction is becoming aware that it can happen to anyone. However, some people are more prone to addictive behaviors, whether by genetics, environment, or the experience of trauma. Because dependency develops and progresses so quickly, knowing more about the underlying causes of addiction may deter future abuse. It can also prevent relapse in some cases. 

Commonly Identified Causes of Addiction

It would certainly make addiction treatment much easier if there was an exact answer as to “what causes addiction?” Unfortunately, there isn’t a universal explanation. The only certainty on the matter is that addiction began with an initial experience regarding substances, and eventually dependency developed. 

While the act of abusing substances is initially prioritized through detox, an addict’s motivation is the underlying cause of addiction. This is why it’s said that there is no single reason as to why people start using drugs or alcohol. Also, this may explain why so many become addicted, having been unaware of the severity of the consequences of experimentation.

However, research shows that the most common motivations for substance use include:

  • Desire to increase feelings of pleasure or satisfaction
  • Desperation to escape mental or physical pain
  • Peer pressure or a desire to belong
  • Curiosity about the effects of drugs or alcohol
  • Boost in cognitive function, for young adults, likely to get better grades at school
  • To boost work performance 
  • With the intention to maintain stamina and fight fatigue

Realistically, most people start using drugs or alcohol because of their own decision to do so. However, some people are forced into substance use. Either way, it is usually correlated with intense trauma. Societal pressure and life experiences play an enormous role in the behaviors and choices of every individual. However, the usual cause of addiction independently comes down to an initial choice to turn to drugs instead of help. 

Causes of Addiction: Why Can’t Addicts “Just Stop”

When initially learning about a loved one’s chronic drug or alcohol abuse, many people are in shock or even denial. For individuals that have never experienced addiction, the incessant drive to use dangerous and often illegal chemicals is unrelatable. The misunderstanding of how desperate the addicted individual is to their drug of dependency divides even the closest relationships. 

In the beginning, substance users never expect that drinking or drug use will lead to addiction. In fact, many are in denial that substances can have such control over them. That is until they are unable to stop or become ill during periods of withdrawal. Typically, instead of reaching out for help to effectively detox, substance use becomes involuntary and begins to happen more regularly.  

Family Therapy Reunites Loved Ones After Addiction

Taking advantage of family therapy during and after rehab is helpful for everyone involved. Those who are willing to make the effort, find that communicating with the help of a mediator promotes even discussion. Opening up about things that have, or can, cause another emotional pain is never easy for anyone. However, during these sessions, the goal is focused on healing, and a professional therapist is present to intercede. 

Family therapy is a safe space to begin to heal and understand another person’s point of view. Discussing together what could be considered some underlying causes of addiction is part of it. Yet, even more so, therapeutic intervention is a way to reestablish boundaries and expectations that may have deteriorated during addiction. Doing so, not only allows the addict to move forward but also for their loved ones’ concerns to be heard. 

Trauma: An Underlying Cause of Addiction

Trauma, or traumatic memories, are undeniably correlated with the development of addiction and substance abuse. Yet, even individuals that have not experienced significant trauma may still develop an addiction, because what is considered traumatic is personal. Individual therapy is designed to work through whether causes of addiction are specific, and find alternate ways to cope. 

Trauma can be completely life-altering, or, it can be chronically elevated levels of stress, pushing toward the edge. Because of this, trauma and stress are considered to be the most considerable underlying causes of addiction. However, this is what makes addiction, and stress itself, difficult to treat. Still, working one-on-one with a therapist is a quality starting point, and is regularly incorporated into rehab treatment.  

Dual Diagnosis Can Contribute Developing Addiction

Stress and trauma, although associated with numerous physical and psychological illnesses, are not in themselves illnesses capable of diagnosis. However, because of the frequency that they are causes of addiction, a psychological illness that contributes must be evaluated. Specifically, when the disease of addiction is determined, along with another mental illness simultaneously, it is called a dual diagnosis

Treatment can vary for each individual illness, as well as underlying causes of addiction. But it’s important that underlying mental illness is addressed because it can trigger a relapse. Not to mention, psychological illness conditions are likely to worsen. 

The important takeaway in a dual diagnosis case is to understand that addiction is an illness. So not only is it classified as one, it requires professional treatment with specialists who understand a substance use disorder. Sometimes, a dual diagnosis may require long-term rehab support, to stay on track and receive appropriate care.  

Other More Common Causes of Addiction

While it may sound confusing, the reality is that not everyone develops an addiction, even to addictive substances. For example, alcohol is considered to have a high probability for addiction to develop. Yet, it’s legally incorporated into many social activities where people partake, and some don’t develop a dependency on it. Then there are people who become addicted to their prescription medication, even while taking it as directed under doctor supervision. 

No one can say for sure who will go on to develop serious drug or alcohol problems. Or what the underlying causes of addiction will be, for that matter. However, experts know that there are many possible causes for addiction, and who is more susceptible. 

Some of these conditions to consider include:

  • The genetic tendency toward addiction
  • Getting involved in substance use before you’re an adult or witnessing addiction as a youth
  • Being diagnosed with certain personality disorders, especially one that causes a buildup of stress or alienation 
  • Unstable or unhappy home, work, or social circle
  • Parents who don’t provide adequate supervision
  • Friends, family, or acquaintances who drink or use drugs
  • Living in an environment where substance use is common
  • Problems at school
  • Living in poverty

Remember, not everyone affected by these conditions will develop an addiction. Still, very notably, these circumstances do increase the odds of developing a problem with substances or underlying causes of addiction. For this reason, specialists view addiction as a complex condition, requiring intensive treatment and therapeutic care.  

Causes of Addiction: Functions of The Brain

causes of addictionAddiction affects all areas of the body. Being interpreted by the pleasure centers within the brain, substance abuse can initially cause feelings of happiness and satisfaction. Regularly, these areas of the brain become more active when having pleasurable experiences, increasing the neurochemical called dopamine.

When dopamine is elevated, we feel happy, joyful, satisfied, and even sometimes, naturally euphoric, such as after a tough workout. However, addiction interferes with numerous neurochemicals and brain functions. So although activating these pleasure centers is one of the causes of addiction, they subsequently damage their function over time. 

In fact, certain drugs can raise your dopamine up to ten times beyond normal levels. This explains why people feel such a desirable surge of pleasure when they first use it. Also, why some people develop a pattern of frequent substance use, and why over time, tolerance builds requiring more and more.  

Physical Causes of Addiction

The body, reacting to the changes made in the brain, begins to adapt to substance abuse to survive. However, when the effects of the drugs and alcohol wear off, the addict begins to experience withdrawal. In order to stave off the uncomfortable or even painful symptoms of withdrawal, reoccurring substance abuse is welcomed. Severe and recurrent withdrawal symptoms are considered the physical causes of addiction. They are also the leading cause of relapse, making relapse prevention essential to maintaining sobriety.  

Psychological Causes of Addiction

People addicted to drugs or alcohol are not just affected by physical dependence. They also suffer from something called psychological dependence. This means that it’s common to experience emotional changes as a result of uncontrolled substance use, similar to physical withdrawal. Addicts that have psychological dependence are often reluctant to get help initially, and may only respond after an intervention

The most common characteristic of psychological dependence is the strong urge to consume drugs or alcohol despite very serious risks. This produces a compulsion to seek substances to abuse, often without reason or consideration for those in their way. During an intervention, family and close friends are able to bring to light concerns about hurtful behaviors resulting from addiction. Doing so with the help of a professional, can keep the conversation on track, and hopefully, encourage getting inpatient treatment

Learn More About Underlying Causes of Addiction

Doctors and professionals define this condition as a chronic disease triggered by excessive use of drugs, medications, or alcohol. While not everyone who uses addictive substances will become addicted, a significant percentage of people will require treatment for it. Part of understanding the causes of addiction is becoming aware that it can happen to anyone. The misunderstanding of the addicted individual’s pain can destroy families and friendships, and their safety and security.

Addiction is able to take everything away, for loved ones and addicts alike. Instead of waiting and hoping, reach out for information on how to help, or get help, before things get worse. Figuring out the causes of addiction, learning how to manage them, and experiencing a sober life is possible through rehab. Find out more today by getting in touch with rehab and recovery counselors that understand what it means to beat addiction.

Reviewed for Medical & Clinical Accuracy by Laura Riley

Medical Reviewer

Laura comes to NJRC with 23 years of vast clinical experience in hospital, residential, outpatient, and community outreach settings where she has worked, supervised clinical teams, and volunteered. She has provided substance abuse and mental health counseling, clinical coordination, and advocacy to individuals, families and groups, and specializes in co-occurring disorders for both adults and adolescents.