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what causes addiction

What Causes Addiction: Its Not A Moral Failing

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.

In this article, we also use several other terms needing clarification. For the purposes of this post, we define substances as any mind or mood altering drug. This includes alcohol, marijuana, delta 9, and any other substance regardless of its legal status. We also talk about trauma. Trauma includes both big or little events which create an adverse emotional response.

So, What Causes Addiction?

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.

Exposure to Trauma

Exposure to trauma is another factor contributing to addiction. Trauma often results in efforts to avoid reminders of those events. Drugs and alcohol offer that escape in a way that other things might not be able to. That escape from the traumatic memories comforts you, and naturally, you want to repeat it.
Researchers found this link to be present even when a person is not struggling with PTSD. For example, people exposed to childhood adversities, whether they are diagnosed with PTSD or not, have a higher risk of substance use/addiction.

Untreated Mental Health Problems

People with untreated mental health problems are also at risk of addiction. Drugs and alcohol can regulate your mood when you feel like you don’t have any other options. Getting alcohol or marijuana often feels easier than seeing a psychiatrist. And alcohol, marijuana, and other drugs are more socially acceptable than mental health medications in many areas.
Unfortunately, this is a double edged sword. On one hand, drugs or alcohol help you feel like a human being and help you function when your mental health symptoms won’t let you. On the other hand, they make it harder to get mental health treatment. Addiction makes it harder to recognize you have a mental health problem. Substances also complicate treatment options.

Environmental Factors

Finally, environmental factors increase your likelihood of addiction. Alcoholics Anonymous talks about people, places, and things as potential triggers for relapse. These factors also contribute to the development of addiction.
People impact addiction through community, friend groups, and other peer influences. For example, you might live in a community in which substance use is the most readily available way to cope with problems. Native American reservations are a prime example of this community aspect of addiction. Likewise, if your peer group uses drinking or drug use as recreation time, you are more likely to struggle with problematic use.
Places and things are also environmental aspects impacting addiction. As an example, proximity to a bar or liquor store might increase your curiosity about drinking. Having easy access to other substances would reduce barriers to using those as well.

Conclusions About What Causes Addiction

Addiction is not a moral issue. No one makes the choice to become addicted to substances. Instead, other factors such as genetics, family of origin, exposure to trauma, or untreated mental health concerns play a larger role in the causation of addiction. Recognizing this shift is important. If addiction were a moral issue, you would need to rely on willpower to overcome it. By recognizing the other factors, you have many more tools in your arsenal to fight addiction.


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