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Underlying Causes of Addiction

Addiction is a chronic and relapsing disease that impacts more than 20 million Americans per the 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH).

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Not everyone who uses drugs and/or alcohol will battle addiction, and there are several things that can contribute to the onset of the disease. Both environmental and biological factors can play a role in why one person may be more likely to struggle with addiction than another.

High levels of stress, peer pressure, and a lack of parental involvement or attachment during childhood can increase your risk for drug and alcohol use. Using these substances before the brain is fully developed can raise the odds that you will suffer from addiction as an adult.

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Biological and genetic components can also influence rates of addiction, which can make you more vulnerable to the disease. If you battle a mental health disorder, have irregularities in brain chemistry, or have immediate family members who struggle with addiction, you may then be more likely to also deal with the brain disease yourself.

Addiction is a complex disease that can be caused by a variety of contributing factors. These influencing dynamics are often intertwined.

Environmental Factors Involved in Addiction

The age-old question of nature versus nurture comes into play here. The answer regarding addiction is that usually both are equally involved.

Drugs and alcohol can provide a temporary escape from the real world and act as a stress reliever in the moment. When you drink or take drugs, your brain chemistry is altered. These substances can make you feel happy, less inhibited and anxious, and more relaxed and at ease.

Since they are mind-altering substances, drugs and alcohol boost levels of dopamine, which is one of the brain’s chemical messengers that keeps emotions regulated and signals feelings of pleasure. Repeated use of drugs and/or alcohol can actually change the way your brain responds to pleasure, and it can impact your reward processing pathways.

This can lead to addiction, as your brain will be less able to feel happy without the substance. You can then experience cravings and difficult withdrawal symptoms without it.

Children and teenagers have a less fully formed prefrontal cortex than adults. This means they are more apt to be impulsive and not think through consequences as much, making them more likely to experiment with drugs and alcohol. Peer pressure and a lack of parental oversight can increase the rate of substance abuse as well.

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The journal Adolescence: State of the Art Reviews publishes that close to 80 percent of teens report using alcohol or drugs at some point before reaching adulthood. This can be a predictor for addiction down the line. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports that teen drug and alcohol use can make you two to three times more likely to battle addiction as an adult.

Not every teenager who tries drugs is going to become addicted. Some of the predictive factors include the following:
  • A high stress environment
  • A social group that encourages drug or alcohol use
  • Parents not involved and/or relaxed parental attitude toward drug and alcohol use
  • An unstable home life, often from a young age

The Genetic Link

The link between genetics and addiction is strong. Studies show heritability of the disease at 30 to 70 percent based on the drug, the journal Clinical Pharmacology and Therapeutics publishes. If your parent or an immediate family member struggles with addiction, you may be twice as likely to also battle the disease than someone who doesn’t have the same genetic link.

Genes can influence the way drugs interact in your brain and body, NIDA explains, which can then make you more or less susceptible to addiction. For example, if you have lower levels of natural opioids in your brain and you try heroin, it may impact you more. This makes you more likely to keep using it for the intense high it can produce.

Genes can also be involved in the way your brain regulates moods and deals with impulse control. The Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs says that while environmental factors may be more influential for trying drugs as a teenager, genetic factors can actually impact repetitive drug use patterns as an adult.

Genes can make you more likely to struggle with conduct and behavioral problems as an adolescent, and this can make drug and alcohol use more common.

Genetic factors can also influence the way you are able to manage your emotions and calm yourself. Again, drugs and alcohol can be a form of self-medication, and this is more likely if emotional instability is present.

You may use drugs due to a stressful environment, but then genetic markers reinforce the behavior, NBC News explains. Ultimately, it is believed that both genetics and environmental aspects are involved in the onset of addiction.

Connection Between Mental Illness and Addiction

As published by NIDA, about half of the population who struggles with a mental health disorder will also battle addiction in their lifetime, and the reverse is also true. Both issues can be involved in the onset of each other, and similar environmental and genetic factors play a role in both.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reports that co-occurring mental illness and addiction are common. Around 8 million Americans experience both, and either issue can predate the other. For instance, you may suffer from depression and repetitively take drugs to try and feel better, which can lead to addiction. Conversely, you may use drugs for years and then try to stop, which can lead to depression and anxiety.s possible.

Many of the same parts of the brain can be related to both the onset of mental health disorders and addiction, as both involve issues with mood regulation, impulse control, and reward processing. Environmental factors that impact drug use and addiction can also be similar, making you more vulnerable to mood and mental health disorders.

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Regardless of which issue came first, addiction can complicate treatment for mental illness, and vice versa.
The following mental health disorders commonly co-occur with addiction:
  • Schizophrenia
  • Depression
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Conduct disorder
  • Antisocial personality disorder
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

Treating the Root Causes of Addiction

It is important to understand what may have led to drug and/or alcohol use in the first place when treating addiction. By identifying the root causes, you can better work through the whys instead of merely putting a temporary bandage on the situation.

You need to treat the cause, not just the problem. If you merely deal with balancing out brain chemistry and weaning off drugs but go right back into a stressful situation without the tools to handle it, odds are you may turn right back to what worked to make you feel better before.

Treatment for addiction is individual, and it will be different for each person. If you struggle with both a mental health disorder and addiction at the same time, you will benefit most from an integrated care plan that can manage both disorders simultaneously. Any medications to manage withdrawal or addiction will be customized, and the treatment plan will vary based on your specific circumstances, biology, and genetic makeup.

Addiction treatment needs to focus on what triggers you and makes you want to use drugs or alcohol in the first place. When you address the underlying issue, sustained recovery is possible.

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