What Causes Addiction?

Experts on alcoholism widely agree that some people are genetically vulnerable to developing the disorder. Sons of alcoholic fathers, for instance, are at three to four times the risk of abusing the substance, according to research published by the National Institute of Health (NIH). In general, a predisposition to abuse one drug applies to almost all other drugs. Alcoholism, for instance, may be present in as many as 75 percent of cocaine addicts.

Nevertheless, no single gene has ever been identified as causing addiction, nor has a clear portrait of an “addictive personality” yet emerged. So what factors explain why nearly 23 million Americans — almost one in 10 — are addicted to alcohol or drugs, a statistic discovered by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)? To understand several current theories, read on.

Brain Chemistry

Addictionologists cited by NBC News theorize that some people, particularly those addicted to opiates such as painkillers, may have deficiencies in their brain reward systems. For instance, they may have fewer natural opiates circulating in their systems, or fewer receptor sites. Other drug users gravitate toward their drugs of choice to self-medicate. Heroin, for example, effectively normalizes people who suffer from delusions and hallucinations. Cocaine can quickly lift depression, or enable a person with attention-deficit disorder to become organized and focused. For these people, addiction is simply a troubling side effect to attempts to relieve suffering.

Problems come because drugs do not just make users feel euphoric, but also simultaneously releases brain chemicals related to fear and stress. Studies published by the Scripps Research Institute show that these negative feelings linger after the euphoria fades. The only way to treat the bad feelings is to take the drugs that make you feel good again, which becomes a vicious cycle, explain scientists behind the research. Even worse, changes in their brains make addicts crave drugs long after they have stopped using them. Cravings can be triggered easily, a vulnerability that lingers as long as the memory linked to using lasts. Researchers are still trying to figure out why some people undergo these brain changes and become addicted while others do not. The ultimate goal: to develop medicine to control the craving.

Personality and Psychology

According to psychiatrists who have studied psychodynamic causes of drug addiction, the motivation to use psychoactive substances can often be traced to critical passages early in life. Edward J. Khantzian, the Harvard psychiatrist credited for forming the “self-medicating” hypothesis of drug addiction, notes that many substance-dependent people are profoundly unable to calm and soothe themselves under stress. Locus of control is another influential factor in the formation of addiction, says Robert B. Millman, a renowned addiction expert at Weil Cornell Medical College. In short, addicts tend to believe that they are not the masters of their own fate — that control lies outside of them.

Narcissists are also well represented within drug-addicted populations. Their self-absorption is so profound they don’t understand that the world outside them is real, and dangerous. That outlook can lead them to feel that they are invincible, a mindset that leads them to minimize the hazards of risky behaviors such as driving while under the influence of alcohol or taking care of children while drinking. Adrenaline junkies are vulnerable for similar reasons.

While positive reinforcements such as pleasure or a euphoric high may entice a person to use a drug again after experimenting with it, continued use is often a function of negative reinforcement. This means that it is not so much the value added by drug use that keeps them coming back — getting intoxicated, for example. Rather, motivation stems from a desire to avoid unpleasant withdrawal symptoms. Tobacco smokers and opiate users experience this most dramatically; their urge to use stems less from a craving for pleasure, more from a need to relieve painful withdrawal symptoms.

Addiction Triggers: Other Causes

Environment is one variable that experts agree raises vulnerability. The culture in which a person is raised sets the stage for the development of addiction for several reasons. They include the following:

  • If a family member or intimate friend abuses OxyContin, the illicit act can seem acceptable to other members of the community
  • Frequent exposure to dangerous drugs desensitizes people to their risk, making experimentation and using more likely
  • Coping skills are learned behaviors, so individuals who escape stress by taking OxyContin lead by example

The other side of this coin is peer pressure. Contrary to popular belief, people of any age are susceptible to social influences on behavior. Adults with low self-esteem or stress management capability can fall prey easily to conformity just as easily as teenagers — especially as they strive to fit into new social groups, workplaces and neighborhoods.

Getting Help for Addiction

You can break free from addiction to alcohol and other substances. Admissions coordinators are available at our 24-hour, toll-free, helpline to help you make the transition and answer your questions. Don’t go it alone. Please call today.

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