Facing the Root Causes of Addiction

Last Edited: February 14, 2020

Bianka Fisk

Clinically Reviewed
Jim Brown, CDCA

All of the information on this page has been reviewed and certified by an addiction professional.

If you only focus on the addiction itself and not on the underlying problems, then relapse is very probable.

Addiction is a very complex disease and one that cannot be dismissed because its life threatening nature. The root of addiction is complex and varies from one addict to the next. Significant pieces of research have demonstrated that the brain activity of people with addiction is different than those without addiction, meaning it is actually an illness and not just a choice. It is also known to be chronic like other medical conditions, such as asthma or diabetes. People afflicted with addiction habitually feel the need to use their substance of choice – this could be drugs, alcohol, sex, gambling, food, etc. in order to satisfy their craving. While there are many types of addiction, here we will speak mainly about addiction to drugs and alcohol.

Research done by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has shown that in 2013, millions of people in this country needed treatment and assistance for a reported substance abuse disorder. Unfortunately, only a small percentage actually received the treatment. 20 million people were recorded as having received some form of addiction counseling, a fraction of those who actually need it.

Addiction as a Changing Disease

Addiction is also a changing disease. While it often starts with an action of choice (choosing to use drugs recreationally or being prescribed drugs), it quickly evolves into something else. It starts to move into dependency, where the body requires the drug in order to feel “normal” and to avoid withdrawal symptoms. From there, it moves into full addiction, where obtaining the substance takes precedence over everything else in a person’s life. At all times during this process, there is a desired outcome, but this outcome changes. Reasons such as:

  • Recreational or prescription use, the desired outcome is a “high”, or the effect the medication is prescribed for.
  • Dependency, the desired outcome is to keep withdrawal symptoms away.
  • Addiction use, the desired outcome is to have more of the substance.

The lines between dependency and addiction are blurred, and there is a huge degree of overlap. The key difference is that in dependency, people still have some understanding of what they are doing, although they have started to lose the element of choice. If they do choose not to use a substance, their body will go into withdrawal. In an addiction, even that understanding is completely removed and the brain has changed significantly as well.

Addiction brings on a number of signs. Some of the most common and universal signs are:

  • High tolerance to the substance.
  • No longer being able to control how often, or how much you use.
  • Obsession with the drug.
  • No longer taking part in any activity that is not related to the drug.
  • Knowing that you are harming yourself by using the substance, but continuing to do so nevertheless.

Addiction evolves from dependence. However, as with a dependent individual, should anyone suffering from an addiction stop taking the drug, they will experience withdrawal symptoms. Exactly how these will manifest depends on which substance is being used, but some of the most commonly experienced symptoms are:

  • Fatigue
  • Trembling
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Sweating
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Insomnia
  • Headaches

With alcohol, withdrawal symptoms have the potential to be deadly. It is vital to seek medical attention if you want to overcome an alcohol addiction. It is also advisable to seek medical attention when withdrawing from any other substance as well. There is always a danger of the symptoms becoming a threat to one’s well-being. It is very difficult for addicts to utilize willpower to withstand the symptoms, increasing the likelihood of using the drug again.

What Causes Addiction to Drugs or Alcohol?

This is a common question with no straight answer. Many people who are addicted to drugs started experimenting with substances at some point in their life. Some were simply curious, others experienced peer pressure and others were dealing with difficulties in their life and thought it night help. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, around 20% of people who abuse substances have a mood or anxiety disorder, including depression. People suffering from a mental health issue often feel unsupported; in fact, even our language is geared towards that, saying that certain things are “all in the head”. Many people with more severe mental illnesses, such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, choose to self-medicate by turning to harmful substances.

Not All Addiction Begins with Experimentation

Not every addiction starts through recreational experimentation. In fact, a lot of people become addicted after being given a prescription by their physician. Opiate prescription painkillers, like Hydrocodone and Oxycontin, for instance, known to be highly addictive and they. In a report by the Los Angeles Times, it was found that, in 2010 alone, 92,200 people suffered a prescription painkiller overdose. Meanwhile, the CDC stated that in 2012, 259 million prescriptions were issued for opioid painkillers.

Prescription drugs are often very necessary; people with debilitating anxiety, for instance, need benzodiazepines to function. Others who experience chronic pain that leads to a significant reduction in quality of life, need drugs like Oxycodone. However, this should be done under the supervision of a physician, who can monitor the patients and make sure that they are following their prescription. This is because it is known that Oxycontin is addictive, and should therefore only be given for a short period of time. In fact, according to help guide, those who take benzodiazepines for a few months, following their prescription, are likely to become addicted. Additionally, tolerance to the drug, which means their desired effect of reducing anxiety no longer exists, happens after between four to six months.

Alcohol addiction, also known as alcoholism, is another complexity. Because it is a socially acceptable drug, and because it is legally available in many different places, it is very easy to abuse. Nevertheless, it is an addictive substance, and a very dangerous one at that.

What Are the Underlying Causes of Substance Abuse?

It is now understood that there isn’t just one single cause of addiction, but rather, a highly complex illness that develops when many different factors come together. One of the most common factors is a mental health disorder. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 50% of all drug addicts have also at least one, if not more, severe mental health illness.

An addiction combined with mental illness is a co-occurring disorder; it is irrelevant which one came first, or which one caused the other. They must both be treated together if the patient wants to recover. By treating them individually or separately, the patient is at much greater risk of relapsing. Relapse is already common in addiction, so steps must be taken to reduce this as much as possible. This can be difficult if the addiction has taken hold in a case where the drug is genuinely needed, such as someone with anxiety who is prescribed Klonopin.

It is also believed that genetics have a role to play in addiction. Addictions and Recovery has stated that those who have at least one parent who had an addiction are eight times more likely to become addicted themselves compared to the normal population. In fact, research by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism states that 50% of addiction development comes from hereditary factors.

A child doesn’t have to grow up in an addicted household: parenting styles are also important. The Pennsylvania Family Support Alliance has made people aware that when parents behave as if drugs are no concern or no big deal, their teenage children are more likely to experiment with drugs.

Causes of Addiction Psychology

As has been mentioned several times, an addiction is a complex illness and it is rarely possible to give a specific reason as to why it happened. It is a compulsion and compulsions tend to be reactions to emotional stresses, even in to those without an addiction. This is why it is very common for people to switch between drugs, or to switch between addictions: they are not necessarily physically addicted to a specific substance, but rather, they do not know how else to respond to certain cues. In these types of addiction, where there is no physical dependence on the substance but only a psychological one, treatment is still required, because it is still an addiction, and it acts in the same way as a physical one.

Using drugs, or being addicted to a certain type of behavior isn’t just about finding pleasure; people who are addicted to drugs don’t have a weak character, nor do they lack morality. The debate, currently, is whether addiction is a mental illness or a biological disease, and not necessarily an illness. There is also a debate on whether there really is a difference between dependence and addiction. It is likely that these debates will continue. However, what matters is not that there is a definition, but that there is a way to recover from an addiction.

What Causes Addiction in the Brain?

Addiction must be understood for what it is: a disease that affects the brain that stops people from being able to control their actions, regardless of the negative consequences. People gamble, drink, smoke, do drugs, and more because it makes them feel better. Drugs produce pleasurable feelings, because they work on the brain’s reward center, however, continuously activating this reward center depletes it, leading to changes in the chemical makeup of the brain.

But that doesn’t answer why some people can be social drinkers or social smokers for life, whereas others become addicted. Intensive neuroscientific studies have been conducted on this, focusing on humans and animals alike, to try to answer that specific question. While these studies are ongoing, scientists are starting to have a greater understanding of the different factors that make people more susceptible to addiction. Some of these factors include:

  • The individual’s genetic makeup
  • How vulnerable someone is to stress
  • How young they were when they first started to use

However, other processes must also take place, because even someone who has a genetic predisposition to addiction, copes very poorly with stress, and started using very young, does not have to become addicted. Similarly, someone with no history of addiction and a positive outlook on life, who starts using substances in late adulthood can suddenly become addicted. Every time scientists start to understand an element of addiction, they communicate their findings with different treatment centers and organizations, thereby helping to improve treatment and reduce rates of relapse, creating a positive impact on the world.

Changes in the Views Regarding Addiction

During the 20th century, scientists had great difficulties studying addiction. Real research didn’t start until the 1930’s, at which point it was assumed that only those with no willpower and who were morally weak could become addicted. Those views were so ingrained into the public mind that they are still around today. The result was that addiction was treated through punishment and that there was no focus on prevention at all. Luckily, science has come a long way since then and it is now accepted that addiction is a disease that requires treatment. Furthermore, it has been found that there are environmental and biological factors that contribute to the development of addiction. Put together, this has helped to shape treatment and prevention approaches, with more information only improving the approaches.

Unfortunately, the general public still lacks an understanding about the reasons why people become addicted, and there continues to be a strong social stigma against addiction. They also struggle to understand that the compulsion to use more drugs is not a choice, but a signal from the brain. This is why organizations like the National Institute on Drug Abuse have made it their mission to improve education on drug abuse and addiction.