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What Causes Addiction?

If you have done any reading about addiction prior to this, you may have already come across the phrase “we do recover.” It’s also a very popular hashtag used on social media by people in recovery and treatment professionals alike. So although this blog is intended to help you understand some of the reasons people develop problems with drugs and/or alcohol, I believe it’s just as important you know that no matter the cause(s), there is always hope for recovery. Many, many people do recover from substance abuse and go on to lead happy, productive and fulfilling lives in sobriety. Please keep that in mind as you read this.

What Is Addiction?

Addiction is a complicated disease involving an inability to stop taking a substance or carrying out a particularly damaging behavior. It can lead to a range of adverse psychological, physiological, and personal effects.

Addiction develops when the urge to take a substance hijacks the parts of the brain that reward behavior and then alters the way our bodies process the substance(s) to create the craving for more.

Substance-related disorders also impact the area of the brain responsible for emotions and decision-making. Eventually, people end up taking a substance not just to feel good, but to feel "normal" by preventing withdrawal symptoms.

What Does an Addict Look Like?

For whatever reason, many people still have the mental picture of an addict/alcoholic as someone who is homeless, dirty, incoherent and often criminal. While there is no doubt that some substance abusers fit that profile, there are many more who appear outwardly to be normal and productive everyday citizens.

Often a person has the outward appearance of success – a good job, high income, nice house, seemingly-happy family – even though they are inwardly lost to the disease of addiction.

Addiction strikes every segment of the population, and it knows no boundaries. Black, white, Asian, Hispanic – rich or poor – professional or blue-collar – anyone can suffer from substance abuse.

Because up to 20% of the US population suffers from a drug or alcohol dependency, high-functioning addicts may even be the rule rather than the exception in today’s society.

What Are the Causes?

Addiction is a disease with many contributing factors, but no single identifying cause. Some of the factors that most often play a role are:

Genetics – experts believe that up to half of a person’s risk of developing an addiction is due to their own personal genetic predisposition. It is known that individuals who have close family members who have been addicted to drugs or alcohol are much more likely to suffer from a substance abuse disorder at some point in their life.

Trauma – many people who have suffered from some past emotional upheaval(s) or traumatic experience(s) will try to self-medicate in an attempt to feel better.

Family History – individuals who were exposed to drug or alcohol abuse as a child are at high risk of substance abuse when they become adults.

Social Pressure – when a person already has a genetic/familial predisposition to addiction and they are exposed to regular usage, it can precipitate a rapid addiction.

Co-occurring Mental Disorders – conditions such as anxiety, depression and PTSD can both partially cause and be partially caused by addiction. During treatment, it is important to address both the substance abuse disorder and the simultaneous mental disorder.

Behavior – even when a person believes that they are using substances recreationally or socially, regular heavy use can result in the brain changes that dictate addictive behavior. In other words, if a person drinks or uses substances long enough and heavily enough, they will become addicted.


I have written this blog to help you understand the reasons some people develop alcohol/drug dependency, abuse and full-blown alcoholism and others don’t. However, it is also important to remember several key factors as you develop an understanding of the causes and factors of addiction:

  • there are treatments and interventions that work when offered by skilled and qualified treatment professionals

  • relapse does not have to be a part of recovery

  • much of the research in recent decades shows the importance of family support in helping loved ones become motivated to get treatment and remain focused on long-term recovery

Despite the many tragedies associated with the disease of addiction, there is always hope!

“There is hope, even when your brain tells you there isn’t.” – John Green

If you would like to learn more about addiction, please visit my blog for more information.

If you or a loved one may be struggling with addiction, it is very important for you to seek out professional help as soon as possible. Please do not hesitate to reach out to me if I may be of assistance to you or your loved ones. My website provides more information on my practice and how to contact me with questions or to take advantage of a free 20-minute phone appointment.

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