July 10th, 2020

What Causes Drug and Alcohol Addiction?

A bottle of alcohol and two glasses sit on a wooden table.

The cause of drug and/or alcohol addiction is never simple and straightforward. Many biological, psychological, environmental, and social risk factors are correlated with substance use and addiction. However, it is not always clear whether these correlations reflect a cause-and-effect relationship. Nor is it clear which would be the cause, and which would be the effect. Nevertheless, researchers have identified several different factors that can contribute to a substance use disorder.

The stigma around addiction demeans those who are struggling with these issues. Read on to understand how the factors contributing to drug and alcohol addiction are even sometimes beyond our control, rather than being rooted in deviant behavior or immorality.

1. Genetics and biology

Some people may be genetically predisposed to substance use disorders because of some genes related to their dopaminergic system. The dopamine receptors are involved in feelings of pleasure and reward.

Comorbidity can also play a role in substance use. Some physical or mental health disorders can make a person more impulsive — more likely to use substances — or can make a person want to self-medicate. For instance, a physical disease or mental health problem may cause anxiety and/or depression. The person may then use substances to cope with these symptoms. On the other hand, substance use disorders can cause some mental health problems. So the relationship between a mental health problem and a co-occurring substance abuse problem is unclear.

2. Family and personal history

A family history of substance use disorders can, for genetic and nongenetic reasons, increase a person’s risk of using a substance. So can some factors from their personal history. These personal risk factors may include certain personality traits are linked to addiction. These include impulsivity, sensation seeking, low-risk sensitivity, and neuroticism. People with these personality traits may have poor self-control. They may have a poor ability to judge risk. They may also have difficulty in handling stress. Thus, they use substances as a way to cope with stress.

3. Co-occurring disorders

When a patient has both a mental health diagnosis and a substance use diagnosis, those conditions are called co-occurring disorders.

It can be difficult to diagnose co-occurring disorders. Symptoms of substance use can mask mental illness and mental illness symptoms can be confused with substance use dependency indicators.

People who have mental health disorders may turn to substance use to try to feel better, or someone may struggle with recovery when the symptoms of their mental illness persist as they discontinue use of drugs or alcohol. Treating one disorder will not cause the other to improve, rather both must be treated together.

4. Environmental factors

The environment an individual lives in can influence whether or not they use substances. Someone may be more at risk of using drugs or alcohol if their family environment and history includes physical, emotional, and/or sexual abuse. Additionally, friend groups may facilitate a peer-pressure environment, in which an individual is pressed to try drugs to be more accepted or feel more connected to their friends through shared interests. This pressure may extend to social media groups as well. With family, friends, and social media, individuals may engage in modeling behavior and imitation — which would include substance use if the ones they see every day do so as well.

5. Societal factors

Environmental factors may hit close to home, but societal pressures to use substances happen on a broader scale — which may influence a person’s environment. This may include a relaxed national attitude toward drug use, film and music that glorifies it, and more. When a society accepts drug use, an individual’s environment and community may be more relaxed about as well. This creates a culture in which the likelihood of an individual trying substances and developing an addiction increases.

There are many factors linked to addiction, but help is available. Many organizations make it a priority to provide drug and alcohol treatment programs online and in person.

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