The Causes of Addiction–How the Illness Develops

The causes of addiction in any individual life can have many origins. Granted, there are biological reasons for an addictive illness to unfold and these are common to everyone. However, there are also various psychological reasons that set the stage for an addiction to develop.

Issues of Self-Medication as Causes of Addiction

Self-medication pertinent to addiction is the use of addictive substances without medical supervision to treat one’s own symptoms. The substances used can be legal or illegal ones, and single substances or a mix. The symptoms one seeks to remedy can be mental, emotional, physical, and even social or spiritual. In short, self-medication is a self-prescribed and self-administered substance(s) to treat symptoms without medical supervision.

Research suggests that the substances used in self-medication are not randomly chosen. They are selected specifically for their particular effects. For example, if one has symptoms of insomnia or agitation, depressant drugs are apt to be chosen to self-treat those symptoms. On the other hand, depressive symptoms may cause selection of more stimulating drugs. Such symptoms as mood problems, problems with confidence and self-esteem, and daily self-care problems like sleep, are common maladies among those who seek self-administration of addictive substances.

Self-medication can also become a vicious cycle in which a substance is used to compensate for another substance’s effects. For example, if one uses a depressant or sedative for sleep, one may use a stimulant for wakefulness. Then, as the cycle continues, one may use a depressant or sedative to ‘take the edge off’ the stimulant used.

There are many possible risks in the use of addictive substances to self-medicate. Chief among these are the possibility of developing an addiction, using dangerous mixes, using a substance that has ill effects, and overdose. Another risk is that a self-medicated and treatable condition goes undiagnosed and untreated then progresses and worsens.

Co-Existing Health Conditions as Causes of Addiction

The issue of self-medication leads us naturally to underlying problems that cause self-medication in the first place. These conditions can be psychological or physical that cause distress and impaired daily functioning of some sort. Depression, anxiety, trauma, and grief are common psychological issues that lead one to seek relief in substance use. Chronic pain is chief among the physical causes of self-medication.

Research suggests that as many as 60% of all adults with an addiction also have a co-existing mental health problem. And, these issues appear to begin early in life. This number holds up among adolescents in treatment for a Substance Use Disorder. Among the mental health disorders that commonly co-exist with addiction are Anxiety Disorder, Panic Disorder, Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Depressive Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Psychotic Disorder, and Personality Disorders.

The National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) lists 4 reasons that people take intoxicating drugs, and 3 out of 4 certainly fit with the attempt to self-medicate a co-existing condition. NIDA says people use intoxicating drugs to: feel good, feel better, do better, and out of curiosity.

Continued Substance Use as a Cause of Addiction

However addictive substance use begins, it is the progressive nature of drug abuse that becomes problematic in one’s life, and in the lives of loved ones involved with the person who abuses drugs.  A Substance Use Disorder can be diagnosed with just 2 of the following symptoms. It can then progress to all 11 symptoms as use continues. As you review the symptoms of a Substance Use Disorder, keep in mind that these are the effects in one’s life, and notice how pervasively addictive substance use can affect one’s daily experience,  personal functioning and overall quality of life.

  1. Taking the substance in larger amounts or for longer than you’re meant to.
  2. Wanting to cut down or stop using the substance but not managing to.
  3. Spending a lot of time getting, using, or recovering from use of the substance.
  4. Cravings and urges to use the substance.
  5. Not managing to do what you should at work, home, or school because of substance use.
  6. Continuing to use, even when it causes problems in relationships.
  7. Giving up important social, occupational, or recreational activities because of substance use.
  8. Using substances again and again, even when it puts you in danger.
  9. Continuing to use, even when you know you have a physical or psychological problem that could have been caused or made worse by the substance.
  10. Needing more of the substance to get the effect you want (tolerance).
  11. Development of withdrawal symptoms, which can be relieved by taking more of the substance.

To better understand how this pervasive condition begins and progresses, it is important to look at the effects of addictive substances upon the brain.

Brain Alterations as Causes of Addiction

The symptoms of a Substance Use Disorder given just above are the observable symptoms of an addiction. Deep within the brain, however, are alterations caused by addictive substances that are largely invisible to us. In fact, addiction is now widely acknowledged as a brain disease. Abuse of addictive substances steadily teaches the brain to become addicted.  New ‘brain habits’ occur in how brain chemistry works and how the structures of the brain evolve and perform.  All of these changes in the brain support and eventually demand compulsive substance use. Essentially,  substance abuse gives us a different brain.

As we have recurring intoxication episodes, we adjust our internal and external lives to them. They become familiar and the brain learns to rely on them and to expect them, as do we in everyday life. Eventually, this reliance causes the addictive state within the brain. The symptoms of a Substance Use Disorder as listed above become apparent, and reflect alterations in the brain.

Family History as a Cause of Addiction

Having a family history of addiction is one of the chief indicators that people will develop an addiction themselves. This leaves the longstanding question of whether addiction is genetic or inherited from family, or learned within a family that has addiction in it. After much research, there are still varying opinions. What seems to be commonly accepted, however, is that both genetics and learning can cause addiction. Also, genetic vulnerability to addiction and learning to be addicted can happen in the family at the same time.

It is thought that there is genetic vulnerability and predisposition to addiction that runs in families. Although a specific addiction gene has not been found, addiction-related genetic traits have been. In twin research, for example, 40-60% risk for alcoholism can be attributed to genetics, and for addiction to other substances, genetics as a determining factor may rise to 80%.

Children who grow up with addiction in the family learn a great deal about how and when to use substances. They learn that substance use is a coping strategy for a wide range of life situations, stress, and feelings, for example. Also, they simply learn that substance use is an option for routine daily life. Learning to cope with substance use from family in which there is also a genetic vulnerability for addiction, dramatically increases the risk of developing an addiction.

Personal Experiences as a Cause of Addiction

Some with addictions found drug abuse through personal experiences–the great majority of which were traumatic. In fact, there is a significant number of addicted adults who were physically, sexually and emotionally abused in childhood, or neglected and abandoned as children. Traumatic events in adulthood also lead many to substance abuse. These include combat, mental illness, poverty, domestic violence, exposure to other violence, and significant loss.

Such experiences can cause traumatic reactions, and these can vary in duration. Trauma reactions can involve very disruptive symptoms, causing one to seek relief in substance use. Common symptoms include sleep disturbance; extreme anxiety, fear or even terror; distressful memories and intrusive thoughts, and flashbacks. When a trauma reaction persists, many find they have progressed into addiction because their substance use has also persisted.

Other personal experiences that can lead to addiction as less painful, but insidious. For example, a work or peer group culture can help one cultivate substance abuse and eventual addiction. There are professions in which alcoholism is prevalent, for instance, and alcohol use is common at lunch or dinner meetings, or for after-hours stress relief. Another group cultures involve such settings as college campuses, fraternities, and sororities.

When It is Time for Treatment

While the causes of addiction can be many and multi-varied, the solution is treatment. Today, we have the luxury of a diverse set of treatment options, too, and this serves to help us along in treatment as never before. Once upon a time, and not so long ago, rehab was largely a one-size-fits-all proposition, and sadly, not everyone fit. Many simply slipped through the cracks because their individual needs weren’t met. Now, however, we have the option of going to a program that treats dual diagnoses, trauma, specific addictions, only members of one gender, LGBT issues, or members of a particular faith. We also have options for particular settings and amenities, as well as for particular treatment philosophies and methods.

If you or a loved one need treatment, we can help get you to the right program for you. Our free consultation service will clarify treatment needs, preferences and insurance coverage. Using this information, we will make appropriate recommendations. Our research into available programs is ongoing, and we have an extensive database to search for you.

You and your family do not have to search for help on your own when you are at the point of needing treatment now. The decision to go to rehab is overwhelming enough. Give us a call and we will dramatically reduce the stress of finding an appropriate rehab.