For years, society looked at addiction as a moral failing. If you used drugs or drank too much alcohol, you were making a bad choice. Of course, this outlook brings with it a lot of shame. This view argues that there is something wrong with you if you’ve made the choice to use drugs or alcohol more than society says you should. But what causes addiction if it’s not a choice?
Let's Be Clear on Terms
Before we even get started, lets be really clear about what we are talking about. The Diagnostic and Statistics Manual (DSM) has its own definitions of substance “use disorders.” However, for the purpose of this article, we define addiction as problematic use. For some people, that might be drinking more than they want to. Other people might find themselves feeling shame about their substance use and hiding it from loved ones.
So, What Causes Addiction?
While a person’s moral compass does not cause addiction, there are several other things which do contribute. These common causes of addiction include genetics or family of origin, exposure to trauma, untreated mental health problems, and other environmental factors.
Keep in mind, you may have all of these factors and not struggle with substance use. Meanwhile, someone else may seemingly have none of these factors and struggle to have a sober day.
Genetics/Family of Origin
The nature versus nurture debate touches many things in psychology. Addiction is no different. However, in this case at least, both nature and nurture appear to have effects.
Research using twins found that there is a likely genetic link for addiction. This gene makes you more susceptible to developing an addiction after exposure to a particular substance. That is, with this gene, if you try a particular drug, you are more likely to become addicted because you are vulnerable to it genetically. People without the gene do not share that same vulnerability.
Your family of origin is technically an environmental factor. However, unlike the environmental factors we discuss later, this one involves your past. Exposure to family members who use or abuse drugs or alcohol normalizes substance use. Therefore, rather than seeing heavy drinking or illicit drug use as a problem, you see this as normal behavior because it’s what you’re used to. This can make it harder for you to recognize when you have a problem. But it also makes you more likely to try using substances as a coping skill in the first place.