Underlying Causes of Addiction

I’ve spoken before of chronic pain and how the current drug epidemic affects those of us who suffer from it. Today I want to talk about the other side of the issue: Those dealing with addiction.

Although we tend to treat addiction as a criminal issue instead of what it is – a mental health issue, the problem is not as black and white as we would like for it to be. It’s a multi-faceted issue and is full of gray areas.

There are generally two views of addiction: It’s either a moral failing on the part of a person who lacks willpower, or it’s a disease that is developed over time with the use of the substance. Because I’ve seen what addiction does and because I am prone to go the scientific route, I am in the latter group, but I am open to other interpretations.

I definitely do not believe it is a moral failing nor do I believe that an addict should be punished for their addiction. By viewing it as such we are missing out on opportunities to find the real cause and therefore a real cure or effective treatment.

Yes, they made a choice by taking the substance, but I am curious as to what prompted that choice in the first place. No one wants to become an addict, so when someone chooses to use a substance that they are aware could become addictive, there’s got to be an underlying cause for it.


Genetics & Environment

Studies have shown that there is a genetic predisposition to addiction. Although we are all wired for it, some are more susceptible than others. This means that if someone in your genetic line suffers from it, you are more likely to become addicted, yourself.

Along with genetics, environmental factors also come into play. This makes sense because even if you’re predisposed to addiction, you are unlikely to begin taking a substance if it isn’t around.

That said, not everyone who has a predisposition to addiction will become addicted to the same drug. I smoked a pack of cigarettes a day for ten years, yet had friends who would only smoke while drinking. I have friends who have become addicted to alcohol after drinking the same amount as me, yet I never became addicted.

Depending upon the brain’s reaction to the substance and the chemicals that the substance replaces, you may be able to take one drug and not have any issues with it while another will turn into an addiction.

Similarly, someone without a predisposition to addiction can still become addicted after repeated use of the drug due to the fact that repetitive use can rewire the brain.


Trauma & Childhood Use

Research has shown that there is a link between childhood trauma and substance abuse. First, let’s look at the statistics on childhood abuse:

Data from the most recent National Survey of Adolescents and other studies indicate that one in four children and adolescents in the United States experiences at least one potentially traumatic event before the age of 16, and more than 13% of 17-year-olds – one in eight – have experienced post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) at some point in their lives.

The brain is constantly changing and growing and adapting to various circumstances during childhood. Whenever a child learns something, the brain develops connections between neurons and as they experience certain things, these connections can grow stronger or even break. So when a child experiences trauma this affects how their brain develops.

Unlike in adulthood, when a person uses a substance – whether consistently or not – while the brain is still developing, they are rewiring their brain to require further use. This means that a teenager who uses a substance has a higher chance of becoming addicted than an adult.

Often, these children and teens will start drinking and then this leads to further substance abuse. They may be unaware of the dangers or they may just not care. If they have no one to turn to they can fall prey to untrustworthy acquaintances which push these substances on them with peer pressure.

This is evident when you think about the fact that children and teens who have experienced some form of abuse are three times more likely to abuse a substance than those who have never been abused.


Self-Medicating After Trauma

Many people will start using a drug or substance after a traumatic event to ease the pain. Whether it’s emotional or physical trauma, if someone has no way of getting professional help for it, they’ll turn to a substance to self-medicate.

At least one study has shown that 20% of people with PTSD have used illicit substances as a means to deal with the symptoms. Similarly, The Journal of the American Medical Association has reported that 53% of drug users have at least one serious mental health issue.

As I’ve discussed previously, America’s healthcare system is woefully inadequate, and mental healthcare is no different. It’s estimated that 56.5% of adults in America who suffer from mental health issues did not receive any care for it in the last year, and 20.3% remain either under-treated or not treated at all.

It is no surprise then that over 21 million Americans suffered from an addiction in 2014. When someone is suffering from either an emotional or physical trauma and have no access to legitimate treatment, they’ll go for whatever is second best. Unfortunately, second best is often alcohol or illicit drugs.

I did this myself after a good friend passed away. Because I didn’t have health insurance, I was unable to get the correct treatment that I desperately needed for my grief. Because of this, I ended up self-medicating and caused myself even more trouble. It wasn’t until I got health insurance and then treatment that I was finally able to face my grief and move past that phase of my life.


Final Thoughts

Obviously not everyone with a mental health issue is addicted. There are many reasons someone might pick up an addictive substance. It could be due to peer pressure as a young kid or teenager, a traumatic event in someone’s life or after being prescribed a medication to treat an injury or illness. As I said above, no one chooses to become addicted. In many cases, they feel invincible and believe falsely that addiction is something that happens to other people, or they are in denial and believe that they aren’t addicted even when they are.

One thing is for sure: Once someone is addicted in this country, their options for recovery are slim. This will continue to be the case until we start looking at addiction as a symptom of a bigger problem. Unless you focus on what made someone start using a substance in the first place you’ll never find out how to get them to stop.

If I break my leg in half, it won’t do me any good to just put an ace wrap on and keep walking. I need to set that break and put a cast on in order for it to heal. Similarly, if someone starts using a substance and becomes addicted to it because they’ve experienced trauma, putting them on Suboxone for the rest of their lives won’t do any good. They’ve got to face that trauma and find healthy ways to deal with the mental health issues it left behind.

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I am a medical professional, introvert and writer. I enjoy writing about health and relationships and helping others.

3 thoughts on “Underlying Causes of Addiction

  1. Thank you for sharing this! I have dealt with 2 people in my life that have and are still battling addiction and depression. My guess is the depression is partially caused by the addiction. It is so sad to see and not be able to do anything to help it. Most of the time I feel stuck between a rock and a hard place. I want to help them but it is draining and causing me more issues in the long run. Does it sound selfish that I am thinking of my own issues and trying to focus less on others issues?

    1. Yes, the depression could definitely be due to the addiction. When someone is addicted to a substance that substance takes the place of the part of the brain that naturally produces chemicals like serotonin and dopamine, both of which can affect depression. When an addict doesn’t have the substance they lose those chemicals, too. This leads to crippling depression and even suicidal ideations. Even if they do have the substance, though, they will suffer from depression knowing that they’re fighting what seems like a losing battle.

      Unfortunately there really isn’t anything you can do for them. Until someone faces their addiction and admits to it they’ll never be helped. If they’ve done that and are actively seeking help all you can do is just be there to listen to them. It’s very easy for those of us with big hearts to get swept up in someone’s destructive behaviors because we want desperately to help or fix them, but it generally just hurts us more than it helps them.

      I don’t think you’re selfish at all! You’ve got serious issues of your own to deal with and you can’t help anyone if you’re not at your best. I like to think of it as two holes; yours and theirs. You can only help so much by digging around yourself to give them dirt to fill their hole. Eventually you’ll find yourself so deep that you can’t throw the dirt out of your own hole to get to them. The only way you can help is by keeping yourself on solid ground.

      I think you’re a wonderful person full of optimism and love and that you would do anything you could to help someone around you. I doubt you could ever be selfish! 🙂

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