Drug addiction is a very misunderstood disease. Addiction is a chronic disease of the brain that cannot be overcome overnight, with a simple “no” or change of mind. If you are asking “why do people get addicted to drugs” or “why did my child get addicted to drugs,” it’s important to recognize this first.
Often as concerned loved ones, we find ourselves asking things like, “Why do some people get addicted to drugs, and others do not?” It’s a valid question, and many people who use drugs don’t think they will become addicted. The truth is, anyone can become addicted to drugs, and there a variety of factors that put them at greater risk.
Common risk factors, or potential causes of drug addiction, include:
- Stressful early life experiences, such as being abused or experiencing trauma
- History of physical or sexual abuse
- Genetic vulnerability (i.e. other family members struggle with addiction)
- Prenatal exposure to alcohol or other drugs while in the womb
- Lack of parental supervision or monitoring during adolescence
- Association with drug-using peers, or peer-pressure from friends or social circles
- Mental health disorders, such as depression and anxiety
As you can see, there are a mix of genetic and environmental influences that can make a person more vulnerable to addiction. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, genetics account for about half of a person’s likelihood to develop an addiction. So, environmental risk factors also play a big role: things like stress, trauma, abuse, lack of education, low-income neighborhoods, high school parties.
People who use drugs during adolescence are also more likely to develop a drug addiction, because their brain is still in development. Exposing the brain to drugs during this critical time can leave lasting changes in the brain, and create greater risk for dependence down the road. Research shows that almost 70 percent of adolescents who try an illicit drug before age 13 develop a clinical addiction within the next seven years. Those between ages 18 and 25 are also at great risk, while their brains mature. In fact, 9 out of 10 people who are battling substance addiction started using before their 18th birthday.
How Do People Get Addicted to Drugs?
Science has helped explain exactly how drug abuse affects people, and how addiction comes to be, over time. Through imaging and other advancing technologies, researchers have been able to actually “see” how substance addiction works in the brain.
It all starts with prolonged drug use. When a person uses drug repeatedly, it changes how the brain functions. Over time, the drug use becomes compulsive, not recreational or voluntary. It is no longer a choice to use drugs – it is no longer in their control. How is this, exactly?
When a person uses drugs, the brain releases a “pleasure chemical,” called dopamine. This results in a euphoric bodily response and mental state, in which the user feels good or high. When the brain experiences this repeatedly, it becomes reliant on that feel-good behavior. And so, it “hardwires” those euphoric, drug-using experiences into its circuitry – and using the drugs becomes its highest priority.
These are physical changes that take place. The brain’s reward system (a primitive system that exists to ensure we seek what we need) gets hardwired to prioritize drug use above all else – eating, sleeping, family, academics. Even when the drugs stop producing pleasure for a user (which happens over time, when a user becomes tolerant on them), the brain continues pushing this need. It produces intense cravings, which occur in the same part of the brain as one’s survival instinct. Thus, acting on these cravings (i.e. using drugs) becomes an overwhelming and dire need – the brain thinks it needs the drugs to function and survive.
At the same time the brain’s reward system is affected, so are the parts of the brain dedicated to judgment, decision-making, learning, and self-control. These physical changes make drug use even harder to quit, as a person loses their ability to make rational decisions and control impulses.
How Do People Overcome Drug Addiction?
Although drug addiction creates physical and chronic changes in the brain, there is good news. The brain can be re-wired again. Substance addiction is actually very treatable and manageable. Of course, this can’t happen overnight. Much like it took time for the person’s brain to re-wire in favor of drug use, it takes time for the brain to re-wire back to a healthier state.
Overcoming addiction requires modified routines and thought processes. It means replacing drug use with healthy behaviors like exercise and cooking. It also involves re-framing a person’s outlook and definition of drug use – it is not a matter of survival, but a process of destruction. This requires education, combined with cognitive therapy to get to the root of their drug-using behaviors.
Over time, the brain can be taught to crave healthier behaviors and to dismiss drug cravings by considering the outcomes and alternatives. It can be taught to seek and prioritize meaningful relationships and activities, rather than drugs and alcohol. It can be taught this through abstinence, ongoing therapy, active management, cognitive reframing, and professional support.
The Top Ten Reasons That People Become Addicted to Drugs
There are several reasons that people become addicted to drugs or alcohol. While each individual has their own story, there are common risk factors and influences that can lead someone down the road to developing an addiction.
1. Genetic Inheritance
It can be a crap shoot as to whether or not we will inherit certain aspects of our parents’ genetic makeups. You may be the lucky one to receive blue eyes from generations back, but you may also be the unlucky soul to be plagued by drug addiction that runs thick in your veins.
Many children of addicts will resent their parents for their several wrongdoings and then grow into drug dependents, themselves. As they begin to use, it is generally easier for them to take in a larger, more lethal amount of a given substance, as their tolerances usually run higher than others’. The more the affected needs to feel the effects of drugs, the easier the addiction tends to set in. Soon, one who may have only wanted to use in a social setting, is using because they have to and because something innate within their being drives them to crave what they rely on. For those who are undergoing this extreme and inborn disease, an inpatient rehabilitation center would be best for long-term recovery from drug addiction.
2. Mental Illness
Many people do not know how common it is to suffer from both an addiction and a mental illness. Sometimes the mental illness—such as anxiety, depression, or even obsessive compulsive disorder—can be the catalyst that brings addiction to the metaphorical surface of a person’s being. It then begins to affect them in several areas of their life, making addiction a mode of self-medication that seems to never end. As drug use becomes more frequent, problems persist making the mental illness seem worse, driving the self-medication to continue in a cyclical fashion.
Though it is common for mental illness to come first, we don’t always know what came first, but simple drug use can be the point that brings about the mental illness that may have been brewing inside of us. At that point, it is all too common for the drug use to turn into addiction. This addiction is something that is difficult to treat when the actual source is unknown and oftentimes, the addicted person is quick to deny any possible mental illness.
Knowing your genetic background for this cause can be very beneficial as it can steer you in the right direction for diagnoses. If you or a loved one suffers from mental illness and coinciding drug addiction, figuring out the root of your diseases may be hard to even fathom. In these cases, dual diagnosis treatment is your best option for getting sober and relieving the mental anguish you experience. Many addiction recovery centers across the country offer dual diagnosis programs which treat mental illness and addiction together.
3. Social Influence
Almost everyone can relate to the ways in which drugs and alcohol enter lives through social encounters. We grow up and right on that border between young adulthood and true adulthood, we begin to experience the nightlife and party scene in a way that pushes us into the use of mind-altering substances. Those around us in social settings are generally the most influential people in our lives when it comes to bad decision making. Friends and acquaintances may not be able to make our decisions for us, but they certainly do make good partners in crime during the college years.
Often, what once began as partying hard, ends up as the foundation for years of addiction-related issues and a lack of direction when college and partying days come to a close. Those who have a dependency on drugs and alcohol due to social pressures may find 12-step programs and outpatient rehabilitation convenient as they work toward a future. For more serious cases of addiction, inpatient rehabilitation programs are recommended.
4. Stress Relief
Life has many goods and bads to offer us. It is the ways in which we deal with every card we’re dealt that lead us to a future, also good or bad.
Work is stressful. School is stressful. Family, marriage, babies, and houses are stressful. Vacation is stressful. Thanksgiving is stressful. Changing a tire is stressful. We must remember that life is life, which means that the normal things cause stress and heartache, just like the hard things do. Changing a tire may not cause as much stress as knowing your husband is going to jail for crimes he committed, but when it comes to alcohol and drug abuse, one simple stressor can lead to another. Every link in your chain of problems is always made worse by drug addiction and as many people tend to drown their problems to forget them momentarily, else to make themselves feel a bit better, those stressful points in life become less easy to handle while unimpaired.
Finding treatment for addiction that starts with stressful moments can be as simple as finding a very good therapist. Cognitive behavioral therapy teaches the addicted person to think about their life from another perspective, to alter their bad behaviors, and to make the right decisions for the future. This style of treatment can be found both at rehabilitation centers and in standalone therapy offices.
5. Prescription Dependency
While many of us look at addiction as something that happens after hard drug abuse causes dependency, a huge cause of addiction is over-prescription or prescription abuse after dependency.
In America, more and more doctors are being fined, stripped of medical licenses, and even put behind bars for the amounts of medication they are allowing people to have and take. Many patients think that because a doctor gave it to them, it should help them and it can’t be harmful. What people tend not to know is that pain management medication—the most commonly abused prescription drugs—are of the same origin as heroin. They are opioid drugs and affect the body in exactly the same way as the street drug and are often more potent and “pure” in form.
Though doctors can’t be blamed in every instance of this addiction style, patients who over-medicate themselves or take other people’s medications are at risk for a life of addiction. When the pills run out, those addicted often turn to street versions so they do not get sick. Heroin, Oxycontin, other pain relievers come into play and ruin lives. Long-term inpatient rehabilitation and medications like Suboxone are the best choices for someone battling opioid addiction. Even if you are addicted only to Vicodin pills, it still means that you are also addicted to heroin.
6. Trauma Elusion
Just like someone who deals with stress and mental illness, intense trauma can trigger addiction as it becomes a mode of self-medication during times that seem much too hard to cope with. Situations that change our lives for what seem like the worst can play into binge drinking or over-medication. What life teaches us is that these situations—once etched into the history of our lives—will not ever go away with a drink or a pill or a needle.
Though it may be hard to stomach the nightmares we’ve had to live through, getting over them through therapy and proper medications can make our use of drugs and alcohol diminish. Outpatient rehabilitation and a good 12-step program alongside therapy for the emotional trauma will help those struggling through these terrible hardships.
7. Pleasure Seeking
Many people tend to believe that this is the sole cause of drug and alcohol addiction. They think that everyone who does drugs does so because they love getting high. The truth is that even those who do do drugs because of the high it produces and the way it feels end up hating what they are addicted to. The high of drugs fades significantly when someone is addicted and has built up a tolerance to it. The more they do it, the more their body tells them they need. It may once have been fun and uplifting in some sense, but the majority of drugs that produce lasting highs are also HIGHLY addictive. They can take someone over very quickly and take away the fun in the blink of an eye.
After a rehab center is utilized, it would be wise for those who are influenced by the high of drugs they once loved to live in sober living facilities. Finding new people to spend their time with and adhering to ma change in lifestyle will promote lasting sobriety with better highs in everyday life than drugs could ever provide.
8. Authority Rebellion
Nobody plans on their adolescent behaviors becoming real-life addictions. Unfortunate for many, when many of us are told we cannot do something, we react by doing that very same thing as much as possible. Staying out late, partying with the wrong crowd, dropping out of school, and letting go of responsibilities all lend a hand in what commonly leads to drug and alcohol use and abuse.
Over time, as we grow into people who can tell ourselves what to do and what not to do, we realize that the rebellion that drove us to misbehave also drove us to be completely dependent on drugs and alcohol. Other rebellious behaviors can be concocted at older ages as adults refuse to obey husbands and wives, neglecting work duties and basic responsibilities while bar hopping and inappropriate partying becomes commonplace.
The life of rebellion, like many other lifestyle choices that lead to addiction, needs to be treated with cognitive behavioral therapy. This therapy mode can change the ways in which people react to outside influences and forces against which they feel they cannot navigate. Knowing that choices in adulthood are ones own, but should be made toward the betterment of life, especially when life is shared—as in marriage—can be life-altering and therapeutic.
9. Legal Indulgence
Not surprising as a cause of addiction, many of us tend to indulge in legal drugs and alcohol that end up making us slaves of dependency. Coming of age to drink, young generations in America take alcohol consumption to extremes these days. Common drinking games and encouragement to binge more and harder on many weekends can become a more serious problem over time.
It may not always be a matter of social setting that lands someone in the deep with drugs and alcohol. Legally purchasing and overusing marijuana, being prescribed pain killers, ADD medication, muscle relaxers, and anti-anxiety pills, such as Xanax, can all contribute to a dependency that becomes harder and harder to shake.
Indulging in something legal that is easy to acquire may make this cause of addiction the most difficult to get a hold on. When it becomes clear that some form of treatment is needed, someone with this style of dependency will need rehabilitation and a change of lifestyle. They may not be able to do things like socialize in pubs and bars. They may also have to announce their dependency to doctors so they are not given something that could jeopardize their sobriety.
Throughout history, even those with enormous amounts of fame have found that experimenting with drugs for the purpose of creativity, expression, and philosophical thought are promoting a better atmosphere for their mind and body. Music, art, and literature has long been driven by drug-addled brains that have most frequently been killed by those same substances.
Finding that creativity can only be had after drug and alcohol abuse could be a sign that the user is not all that talented. The notion that we can use more areas of our brain and open up avenues that were closed before drug use is scientifically inaccurate and also moronic. Drugs affect the brain by blocking receptors that cause the brain, itself, to fend off what is affecting it. This defense mechanism causes the highs and hallucinations that people like to imagine are ingredients stirred into each substance. Realistically speaking, someone who wanted to alter their mind in such a way could ingest trace amounts of poison, receiving similar effect.
Ingesting drugs is just as mindless as ingesting poison and those who do this in an effort to influence brain activity need professional help. Under these circumstances, the most helpful way to treat someone addicted from this cause of drug abuse is through holistic treatment. Holistic rehabilitation can provide healthy alternatives to those who crave to affect the body, mind, and spirit.