What Causes Addiction ?

When a person cannot stop using a substance and find themselves continually experiencing cravings to use that substance or struggling to resist the urge to use we call that addiction. Most people have a view about what addiction is; some are quite rigid while others are more flexible and open-minded in regard to their views on addiction or the person struggling with addiction.

Addiction Graphic

What is addiction? Addiction is a class of repeated behaviours, where short-term satisfaction is linked to longer-term frustration and negative consequences. When we identify a certain behaviour that helps us to cope in adverse situations we tend to default to that behaviour in times of stress or vulnerability. However, those behaviours become maladaptive when the initial reason to find some way to manage our feelings leads to dependence on substances.

Counsellor Clip Art As a drug and alcohol counsellor working with people who have identified goals to stop using harmful substances I prefer to speak of someone having a substance dependence or being substance dependent. Call it semantics but the stigma associated with the word addiction is a barrier to recovery … in my experience.  However, for the purposes of this post we’ll use the terminology interchangeably.

So what causes addiction?

  • Home Environment: if a child is raised in a family where alcohol, or other drugs (a drug is any chemical that has mind-altering affects) are used regularly, drug use and/or drinking is normalised for the child. There are families where a bong on the kitchen table is as common as the teapot was on my parents’ dining room Say no to Cannabistable. (A bong is a filtration device used for smoking cannabis, or other herbal mixtures: a water pipe of sorts). Growing up in a home where violence, whether verbal, physical or sexual is prevalent will increase a child’s vulnerability – in adulthood – to becoming ‘addicted’ to substances.
  • Early start to using/drinking: 40% of children who start drinking or drugging before the age of 15 are likely to experience long-term dependence.
  • Genetic predisposition: if there is a family history of substance abuse/misuse the odds of becoming dependent are raised by 50% over those who have no family history of alcoholism or drug abuse.
  • Social Environment: working with others who drink regularly increases the risk of becoming dependent. Many people drink, or use drugs, to fit in, to be accepted by the in-group. Friday night binge drinking is one example of following the pack and being one of the crowd. Regular exposure to alcohol increases our tolerance and the next time we may need to drink more to get the same buzz.
  • Mental Illness: for 70% of those with a mental illness, some form of substance use is the norm, and vice versa. For some the symptoms of their mental illness seem to be decreased by the use of cannabis initially. However, high use of cannabis and/or long term use at increased amounts can acerbate their symptoms. On the other hand, some experience psychotic episodes after only one or two instances of using drugs. For many the repercussions are lifelong.

Do you know someone who you feel may be dependent on a substance (addicted to a drug or alcohol)?  Do you know where to get support for yourself and help for them?

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2 thoughts on “What Causes Addiction ?

  1. No they don’t and others aren’t interested in hearing about individual predispositions to substance dependence. For them it’s as easy as deciding to stop using. If only!


  2. Good post, Linda, and I agree with your approach. The word ‘addiction’ is one that brings a judgemental attitude, where ‘dependence’ doesn’t have the same negative connotation.
    I also think that many people don’t realise the extent to which genetic factors influence one’s tendency to become substance dependent.


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