Misconceptions about substance abuse and addiction are common across the US. Many people believe that addiction is a choice or a result of deviant or criminal behavior. This has created a stigma about people who are struggling with these conditions, and it can make it difficult for people to get help.

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However, addiction is actually a complex mental condition that can result from a number of biological, environmental, and developmental factors, including:

  1. Genetics or individual biology
  2. Family history of addiction
  3. Peer pressure
  4. Co-occurring mental health conditions
  5. Experimentation with substance use at a young age
  6. Questionable prescribing practices and other factors

The following explores how these factors can each contribute to the development of substance abuse and addiction.

1. Genetics or Individual Biology

People make their own choices about whether or not to use drugs or alcohol; this initial choice relates to personal responsibility. However, once drug or alcohol use has started, one of the major contributing factors for addiction is a person’s genetics. Research, such as an article from Behavioural Pharmacology, indicates that an individual’s genetic makeup can affect how susceptible the person is to developing addiction.

Based on some of the research, an individual’s genes can have to do with how the person’s dopamine system – the brain’s center of pleasure and reward – is likely to respond to the use of psychoactive substances. For some people, it is very easy to become addicted to these substances. For others, it is harder. Much of this is based in the person’s genetic disposition. In fact, the National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that some scientists estimate 40-60 percent of a person’s risk of developing addiction is based in genetics.

Nevertheless, research is ongoing in this area to find out more about how people’s individual physical attributes can contribute to an addiction risk.

2. Family History of Addiction

Genetics is not the only way in which family and background can contribute to the development of addiction. If there is a history of drug or alcohol abuse in the family, it is more likely that other family members will develop a drug or alcohol problem. As described in Psychology Today, this is not just because of the genetic connection; watching family members struggling with the cycles of addiction and attempts to quit using drugs can either subconsciously or consciously affect a person’s decision to start using drugs, leading that person, in turn, to experience the cycle.

Other factors can have an amplifying or mitigating effect on this experience. These can include both environmental factors, such as who the individual spends time with outside the family; other biological factors, such as underlying physical or mental health disorders; or developmental factors, including experimenting with drugs at a young age.

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3. Peer Pressure

A major environmental contributor to developing an addiction is whether or not the individual’s friends and social circle engage in regular substance use. If the person feels pressured to use drugs or alcohol when with friends, this can be the beginning of a habit that may result in substance abuse. Abuse, in turn, can develop into addiction for people who are susceptible. This cycle may result when a person is with a group of friends who are very lax about drug use behaviors, where experimentation is encouraged. It may also happen for people who are socially awkward and start to use because they think it might help them fit in.

As described by Merck Manuals, this can happen because a person who regularly uses drugs or alcohol can develop tolerance, a condition in which the body has become accustomed to the amount of the substance the person is taking, and begins to respond less and less to that amount. As a result, the individual may increase the amount of the substance being used or how often it is taken. While tolerance does not necessarily result in addiction, if this cycle continues to the point that the person can’t feel good without using the substance, addiction can develop.

4. Co-occurring Mental Conditions

People who struggle with other mental health conditions, such as depression or anxiety, may start using drugs or alcohol as a form of self-medication. This means that using the substances helps to diminish the negative feelings associated with the mental health condition, so the person keeps using in order to keep those symptoms at bay.

Self-medication can lead to regular, frequent use of the substance, or misuse of a prescribed substance, that can affect the dopamine system and other brain chemistry to result in the development of addiction. Some research even indicates that certain conditions may make a person more likely to use a certain type of drug. For example, a study from BMC Psychiatry indicates that people with underlying schizophrenia may be more likely to use cocaine, with some evidence that the people who use it think it helps them focus better and eases the symptoms of the co-occurring disorder.

Because of this, it is important to understand whether a person struggling with addiction has an underlying co-occurring mental health disorder, so the two conditions can be treated together. Otherwise, rehab is less likely to have a positive outcome.

5. Experimentation with Substance Use at a Young Age

Developmental factors in addiction are based on the fact that drug abuse can have an even more detrimental effect on the developing brain than on the adult brain. For this reason, even experimenting with drugs or alcohol at a young age can make it more likely that youth with develop a problem with addiction later on.

As described by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), people are more likely to have a substance use disorder if they started using drugs or alcohol before age 18. In addition, they are likely to have the disorder by the time they reach age 20.

Teens are also more likely to start using drugs regularly because their brains work differently than adult brains to begin with. According to information from Live Science, teens are more likely to make decisions based on the reward involved, rather than on other factors. This can make it more likely that young people will develop drug abuse behaviors that result in addiction.

6. Questionable Prescribing Practices and Other Factors

There are other factors that can result in addiction that have less to do with the individual in question and more to do with the drugs themselves. For example, certain drugs, like benzodiazepines, are more likely to result in addiction if used for long periods of time. Research described by NIDA shows that benzos act specifically to disturb the dopamine system, which can result in addictive behaviors over time. For this reason, medical experts recommend that these drugs be used only for short periods of time.

However, some doctors aren’t aware of this problem and may prescribe long-term courses of these drugs, which can result in patients developing addiction over time. This can be particularly dangerous if individuals develop tolerance and begin to misuse the drugs, increasing frequency or dosages.

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Hope in Treatment

There are many reasons that addiction may develop. However, no matter the reason, it is possible to help break the addiction cycle through responsible, research-based treatment at an accredited facility. By committing to treatment, it is possible for individuals struggling with addiction to learn to manage the causes of their drug abuse and start on the path to recovery.