If you’re reading this, you probably have a friend or family member who is addicted to something: gambling, drugs, alcohol, even sex or the internet. And you’re probably wondering how did they ever wind up in such a bad place in their lives? So, if you’re asking the question, “Why do people become addicted”, you’re really wondering what causes addiction. And you want to better understand addiction so that you can react better to the person you’re worried about. We hope to help explain addiction basics for you here.
Is addiction common?
Actually, yes. Addiction is relatively common in modern societies. It is roughly estimated that between 8-13% of people living in developed countries experience addiction: whether to food, video games, alcohol, or drugs. But why do some people get addicted to chemicals and behaviors and others don’t? In other words, what causes addiction?
How do people become addicted?
Scientists are starting to understand addiction as a brain disease and model it as a chronic relapsing condition. People become addicted to anything first by trying it out. But scientists and researchers think that the brain of an addict is different. They have noticed that the initial decision to take drugs, gamble, binge drink, or overeat is voluntary. But what happens then?
To be honest, researchers, scientists and doctors DON’T KNOW. And they put out theories of addiction to try to explain why addicts continue behaviors that are often very self-destructive. In some models, addiction is strictly a medical condition and is an involuntary result of use. In other models, addiction is the result of emotional and psychological problems. And still other models look to the need to self-medicate for psychiatric conditions.
But what is common among the experience of all addicts is changes in the brain as a result of chemicals or behaviors. Whether or not the brain is predisposed to addiction is still being argued. But most scientists agree that when some people experience a sense of euphoria, pleasure or ease as a result of drugs or behaviors …. and that persons continues the behavior…they can start to change the brain over time.
Simply put, the brain of an addict changes over time and makes self control and the ability to resist intense impulses (cravings) very, very difficult.
This type of alteration of the brain is most obvious in drug use, when neurotransmitters (the chemical messengers between brain cells) triggered by drugs either:
1. activate nerve cells to send abnormal messages
2. prevent recycling of brain chemicals or
3. over produce brain chemicals
The end effect of all of this abnormal brain activity is that the brain of an addict needs MORE chemicals to achieve the same initial euphoria. And addicted brains do not function well. An addict’s judgment, decision making patterns, learning, memory, and behavior control get all out of whack. And when the substance or behavior is not present, an addict will do almost anything to feel “normal” again.
Why do people become addicted?
Again, we don’t really know what causes addiction. Addiction is a complex disease that affects the physical brain, the psychological mind, and the spiritual self. But scientists look to two major standout reasons for addiction:
1. Biology (nature) – Addiction is in the genes. Genetics make some people more vulnerable to addiction than others.
2. Environment (nurture) – A person’s environment greatly affects whether or not s/he uses or abuses substances or behaviors. A number of different factors influence substance use, including:
- attitudes and beliefs
- family (quality of parenting)
- friends (peer pressure)
- personality traits or characteristics
- physical abuse
- quality of life
- school factors
- sexual abuse
- socioeconomic status
Why can’t addicts say NO?
It may seem pretty simple to you. If you want to stop being addicted to something, you stop using it. But the good intention to quit a behavior or a chemical substance like drugs or alcohol take more than just good intentions and willpower. The brain needs a break from the self-rewarding and reinforcing pathway that chemical or behavioral addictions create. And this period of “detox”, when the brain seeks its normal state of homeostasis, requires medical supervision.
Are you worried about a friend, family or loved one? Please leave your comments and questions below. We’ll do our best to answer them quickly, with qualified and researched based responses.