4 Underlying Causes of Addiction

4 Underlying Causes of Addiction

by Laura Geftman, LCSW

Undoubtedly someone once told you if you don’t use drugs, you won’t get addicted. Seems pretty simple but it’s not. There’s more to understand about the etymology or causes of addiction. 

What is addiction?

These days it’s pretty common to hear someone say they’re addicted to avocados, binge watching TV, travel, makeup, working out, tattoos… It’s even become common practice to add “-aholic” to thing you claim to be addicted to like “shoeaholic” or “workaholic.” Really our attitudes about being compelled to do or use things too frequently has become all “sex, drugs and rock-n-roll.” All jokes aside, there’s a thin line between over use and addiction.

Addiction is a crippling disease that involves what you’re doing or using taking over your life.

In 1956, the American Medical Association first recognized what we now call “addiction,” “substance abuse,” “chemical dependency,” and “substance use disorder.” While the terminology has changed, the chronic brain disease continues to cause compulsive activity despite health, social and legal consequences. The disease is caused by a variety of factors and lead to long-term negative consequences that can be deadly. 

The American Society of Addiction Medicine has described addiction as “a primary chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry.” It is all too common to think that addiction is only about a substance you can’t stop using. The brain disease causes those suffering from it to a need toward compulsory behavior or use of a substance.

4 Factors Thought to Cause Addiction

Although generally voluntary at first, addiction occurs though a variety of causes and circumstances. Substances produce a euphoric feeling by triggering large amounts of dopamine in certain regions of the brain responsible for the feeling of reward. Addiction occurs when the act of using a substance takes over these circuits and increases the urge to consume more and more of the substance in order to achieve the same rewarding effect.

Addiction as a Brain Disease

Until more recent scientific advancements, addiction was thought to be a moral failing. It had been believed that addicts had simply made a choice to use and therefore become addicted. Accrediting the person’s ability to choose also stigmatized them as out of control and unworthy.

With further clinical studies, repeated drug exposure has shown to change or rewire the brain. Research finding show a relationship between the brain processing of substance use with inflexible behavior, loss of control, and negative emotional states. (source). Addiction has shown behavioral and social aspects of brain function is impeded by drug use, and can be improved by treating with several medications to improve impaired circuits (source). 

Therefore the choice to use is one thing but actually brain functionality further determines your relationship to continued use. Addiction is a complex disease of the brain and its complex systematic functionality.

Where Addiction Begins

No two stories of addiction are the same. There are some common beginnings….

  • -Teenage angst and drug experimentation seems typical. 
  • -Curiosity and peer pressure is common how many recovery stories begin. 
  • -Undiagnosed anxiety or mood disorders also lead some to experience with self medicating. 
  • -Doctors provide prescriptions everyday that have addictive qualities.

Beyond the brain disease model and the introduction to drugs, there are a number of other factors that can contribute to addiction. Addiction isn’t actually attributed to one cause but a culmination of factors. Here are some of the common factors that contribute to addiction:

4 Factors Thought to Cause Addiction

Family history Those born into families with a history of addiction are at greater risk for substance abuse disorders. This is generally dues to two factors: environment and genetics. 

The chaotic environment of an addictive family challenges the sobriety of some children to live a life free of addiction. Research shows that half of the children who is witness to family members abusing drugs are likely to mimic their alcoholism and/or drug addiction. (source).

Poor coping skills Some may see substance use as temporary relief from the stress or pain of their reality. However drugs are not the only way to achieve a sense of relief. Creating coping skills or healthy habits can serve to manage them as well. If exposed to substance use without having developed appropriate coping skills, there’s a 50% chance that you may choose to try to manage stress, difficult emotions, physical ailments and other issues with addictive substances (source).

Mental health Up to half of those subject to addiction are also living with mental health disorders according to the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI) (source). It is often discovered that substance abuse started as an attempt to manage undiagnosed mental health conditions. This type of self-medication can prove very difficult as substance use can lead to addiction and complicate dual diagnosis treatment. Drugs can exacerbate depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders.

Trauma The exposure to fanatic events is closely linked to addiction. With increased stress, a person can feel need to abuse substances to cope. With a repeated attempt to satiate stressful feelings, addiction can become the unhealthy coping mechanism of choice. Cravings continue a repeated behavior and the rewiring of the brain will further continue use.

Ultimately the root of all addiction is pain. Whether any of the aforementioned factors are part of your story or other aspects of your life have contributed, the common that use of substances to deal with what you’ve known and been exposed to. There are all kinds of stressor that we find painful and don’t know how to deal with. Instead we drink, use and abuse substance we hope will give us some relief. Know that there are many other ways to deal with issues as they arise.

Seeing a Mental Health Professional

If you become concerned addiction, it’s best to seek the support of a mental health professional- such as a social worker, counselor, psychologist or psychiatrist. When you see someone professionally trained in mental health care, they can help you understand the difficulties you’re experiencing. 

Sure just the thought of seeking mental healthcare can create more cravings. You may think they will make you talk about your past. Or that you won’t connect with them to feel comfortable to talk about anything. Maybe you’re afraid to cry in front of anyone let alone a stranger. Worse- you think they’ll put you in a hospital, rehab or institution.

Please know I don’t bring this up to elicit fear but to say- those who work in the mental health field are trained to work with you at your own pace. You don’t have to talk about anything you don’t want to. Ever. The idea is to create a safe space for you to feel comfortable to connect with someone who can help you understand your symptoms and learn to manage them. Therapist are legally bound to uphold privacy and confidentiality. That means they can only repeat what you’ve said to them if they are concerned about your safety or the safety of others. Anything else you tell a therapist, they cannot repeat to anyone else without your consent. You literally have to sign paperwork stating they can talk to others about what you’ve shared with them.

Keep in mind- Untreated substance abuse disorders can be harmful to your health and even fatal. If you think you or your loved one may have a substance use disorder or addiction, see a doctor or therapist to determine the best course of treatment.

When to seek emergency treatment

Here are the signs and symptoms would warrant a trip to the emergency room immediately:

  • changes in consciousness
  • trouble breathing
  • seizures or convulsions
  • signs of a possible heart attack, such as chest pain or pressure
  • any other troublesome physical or psychological reaction to use of the drug

If anything listed is cause for concern, call 911 or go to your local emergency room immediately.


About Laura Geftman, LCSW

Laura Geftman, LCSW

Laura Geftman, LCSW is the Founder of The Calm, Cool & Collected and a practicing therapist. Beyond all things cannabis and mental health, Laura is passionate about developing greater understanding for kindness and acceptance. In her free time, Laura can be found on her yoga mat, in a kayak or singing karaoke.

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