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For individuals who have never struggled with substance abuse and addiction, it can be difficult to comprehend how people end up addicted to alcohol or drugs. However, addiction is a widespread, serious problem in the United States, and it’s important to understand the factors that contribute to drug and alcohol abuse. In this post, we’ll shed some light on this issue and discuss some reasons why people become addicted to substances.

Numbing the Pain with Substance Abuse and Addiction

Many cases of substance abuse begin when people use drugs or alcohol as a form of self-medication.1Mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety or bipolar disorder can be so debilitating that sufferers may be willing to try anything to relieve their symptoms. People who have experienced trauma in their past may also abuse drugs or alcohol as a way to suppress painful memories.

Unfortunately, substance abuse can actually make mental health disorders even worse, and it can deepen the psychological issues associated with trauma. As the cycle of drug or alcohol abuse continues, it doesn’t take long for a full-blown addiction to form.

Genetics vs. Environment

Not everyone who abuses alcohol or drugs will end up becoming addicted to the substance. Certain risk factors increase the likelihood that substance abuse will lead to addiction.

Genetics: About half of a person’s vulnerability to addiction can be attributed to genetic factors.2 Gender and ethnicity also play a role in influencing substance abuse. Environment: A person’s environment can have a major influence on the development of an addiction at some point in their life. Socioeconomic status, stress, family involvement and abuse all impact the odds of substance abuse and addiction. Development: Adolescence is a critical developmental stage where susceptibility to addiction may be at its highest. The brain of an adolescent is still maturing, and a young person’s self-control and decision-making skills may not be strong enough to resist peer pressure or the allure of alcohol and drugs.

Changes in the Brain

What causes drug or alcohol abuse to develop into addiction? The path toward addiction begins with chemical changes in the brain. When a person takes a drug, the brain’s reward circuits are deluged with a flood of the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine. The excessive stimulation of the brain’s reward system causes feelings of intense pleasure that drive individuals to use the drug again and again. Over time, the brain adjusts to the surges of dopamine by producing less of it naturally and even reducing the response to it. This makes the effects of a drug less intense than the initial high and indicates that a tolerance has formed. A person who has developed a tolerance might find themselves taking the drug more often or in higher doses, attempting to recreate those early highs. Once the drug-seeking behavior has become compulsive, an addiction has formed.

Addiction is a complex condition, and there are a number of factors that can lead a person to become addicted to drugs or alcohol. If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction, it’s important to know that overcoming this disease takes more than sheer willpower—the right treatment is essential. With a comprehensive treatment program, you can conquer your addiction and begin a productive, healthy life.