Friday October 24th 2014

Why do people become addicted?

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
  • stress

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.

Reference Sources: NIDA: Understanding drug abuse and addiction
SAMHSA TAP Series 11: Causes of Addiction and Modalities for Treatment

Photo credit: catbagan

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24 Responses to “Why do people become addicted?
Jenn
5:01 am September 11th, 2011

My dad has been drinking heavily for a couple months now. He’s been off and on since I was little, but now that he’s been out of work for four years and is currently retired and depressed and out of work, he is drinking a lot everyday. I’ve tried having him get help, but he won’t listen. I’m not sure what to do to help him anymore.

Ray
9:10 am September 18th, 2011

Addiction, in my view is most certainly a complex environmental set of circumstances. NOT a DISEASE. I would put forward the concept that we are ALL addicted to behaving in specific ways that make us feel better and I would further sub classify these as male/female behaviors. Classically among women any form of Retail “Therapy” shows definite addictive traits which may be further narrowed down to Shoes: bags, Make-up & clothes. We can perhaps understand that this appears to make “Vanity” an addiction + the act of shopping in itself which doubles the “feelgood” factor. With men its alcohol and football, the former providing the “feelgood” factor whether or not the football team wins or loses. Both Male/female addictions are based very much on underlying peer pressure, with the need to “fit in” paramount.

Kiara
2:45 pm November 9th, 2011

I am addicted to xnax/bars, it all started with a try and lead to something I craved for. It’s pretty hard to say no to something that gives you pleasure and makes you feel comfortable. I hate not taking a pill because it bothers me not have the feeling I get from taking it. I am going to Rehab and yeah sometimes I want to quit, but I donn’t know how to exactly stop myself from taking one.

10:01 am November 10th, 2011

Hi Kiara. There are many thoughts that lead up to the compulsion to take our drug of choice. Have you thought about working with a cognitive behavioral therapist to uncover what drives you to take Xanax? Also, you may want to check out SMART Recovery, a self-help program based on psychological principles. Please let me know if we can help you further by asking questions.

Emily
9:44 pm February 20th, 2012

I’m only young, late teens and i biological come from a long line of drug addicts, eating, both anorexia and obesity and probably alcohol problems and alot of mental health problems biologicaly. For the majority of my life i’ve been raised in a middle class family (Technically, though we’re hardly conventional) I hav 7 other siblings 2 of which i live with, i can tell u for those who say it’s not genetics, your sadly mistaken i certainly hav a very addictive personality and so do most of my siblings, it’s definitly in our genes, it worries me alot that i can get easily addicted to things, as of yet i hav not used drugs etc… And i hope in the future i don’t and i hope i will make good decisions, but addiction it just isn’t simple, it’svery complex i’d be interested to see why properly people get addicted and what happens to the brain.

11:04 am February 22nd, 2012

Thanks for sharing your experience, Emily. I also have addiction in my genetic line…a strong alcoholic streak. But I also notice that similar “coping” mechanisms have been passed down from generation to generation, which is the “nurture” part of addiction. Maybe you see these same patterns in your family? Things like perfectionism, defensiveness, anger, etc.

Adira
10:24 am April 7th, 2012

I, my self have a problem, my age is 20 and i’m still studying. I use to daydreaming each time i have a chance (am i addicted to day dreaming problem?), since when.. i’m not really sure. It could be in bathroom, car or before sleeping (even worst i can’t sleep at all because of it)… its really annoy me sometimes. But I just can’t stop it, I even fantasizing having intercourse even i’ve got it. I really need a help.. is there any solution? I really don’t want my family and friends know that i having this problem, even the truth that i need their support. I really have a big problem with my self right now… please help me…

4:03 am April 9th, 2012

Hi Adira. Can you talk to a licensed psychologist? Are there mental health programs at your university? Or perhaps is there a school for meditation near your university? Working with thoughts is a lifetime process and you need to learn techniques which will direct your thoughts to use them for your good rather than have your life controlled by thoughts. Does that make sense?

Phoenix
5:12 pm December 6th, 2012

Hi my name is phoenix and my fathere has been addicted to alchohol for as long as i remember, i recently have stopped talking to him, he knows that it hurts me but he acts like i just gave up on him even though i was there him for 14 years. i dont know if i should have a relationship with him because of his addiction

8:34 pm December 8th, 2012

Hi Phoenix. I personally choose to not pursue a relationship with a close family member who is in denial of addiction, but is clearly an addict and is really quite miserable to be around. The choice is yours. But an addict will try to suck the life out of you! Have you been to any Al-Anon meetings? Do you have support where you are?

Aisha
5:55 am March 25th, 2013

My younger brother is a drug addict. He admitted it and even took steps towards taking charge of his life but has refused medical help saying he can get off the addiction himself but it is continuing. how do we deal with that?

2:07 pm March 25th, 2013

Hi Aisha. The best way to deal with an addict is to stop enabling the behavior. Don’t offer a place to sleep. Stop giving the addict money. Set boundaries which require that the addict experience the REAL consequences of using. You can see a family counselor for more help or speak with a social worker or addiction psychologist to cope and learn about ways to intervene with loving detachment.

Hurt Wife
2:59 pm April 11th, 2013

Hi, my husband has been abusing vicodin for several years now. He has come to me 2 or 3 times admitting his problem and wanting my support to help him quit. He detoxes at home each time it gets really bad. He promises to never touch them again, but always does. He feels that he is in control of the problem since he isn’t using as heavy as other times. Last time he came to me wanting support while he detoxed I told him if I ever found out he was using again I would leave him. Well just the other day I walked in on him and his friend snorting them crushed up. He is busted! We have a trip planned in 2 weeks to go to Jamaica and we are both in a wedding together in a month. We also have a 3 year old son together that will be greatly affected if I leave his father or we seperate. I feel like my threats are empty because there is no follow through and in this way I’m an enabler. He says he will go to treatment and will do anything for me to not leave him. I don’t know what to do.

b
9:39 pm April 11th, 2013

My boyfriend of 5 years has been off and on of drugs for 2 years. It started off on oxys but he went to jail and basically was forced to quit because he went to jail, after he was out of jail he was court ordered to go to NA Meetings but I don’t believe that court ordered programs are as sincere as non court ordered. In October we went out of town for 5 days so there were no drug tests because along with court ordered NA meetings he had to do random weekly drug tests, he decided to buy and use heroin for the first time and he experienced the withdrawlwithdrawals from that because I found it and threw it away. He had been clean and sober, complying with all court matters and about 3 weeks ago he used again. He is the type of person that the more you doubt him the more your in his case, he is just going to give uo and use because he feels why not everyone thinks I already am. He is now back in jail again and hasn’t used so he went through withdrawls again, he knows he wants help and doesn’t want to use again or anymore. In our state there is a drug court program that they do counselling, meetings and sometimes Rehab/ 60 day mental evaluation. He wants to try Suboxen to kick that mental craving of wanting to use and the drug court program monitors all of that and helps them ween off Subs. Right now I am his only support and he knows I am there for him. Would a Suboxen program be good? How can understand better of what he’s going through and be a better support for him?
His heroin use was only 2 times in the 2 years, but because its cheaper then pills its easier and he doesn’t want to do it anymore

nicole
7:42 pm June 18th, 2013

hi my sister is addicted to her computer she on it when she wakes up and stays on it till 4 in the morning if later, she starting to not wanting to go out or talk to anyone. she sometimes skips meals and now what’s worry’s me the worse problem is she is talking to strangers and hides her computer from everyone, wont let you even look at the screen . i don’t know what to do?

1:23 pm July 3rd, 2013

Hi Nicole. Check out netaddiction [dot] com for resources and tools to intervene and address possible tech addiction with your sister. She may need counseling and professional help. You’re not alone.

Lori
6:38 am February 4th, 2014

My husband is using drugs and more i think and i am not sure he may use at work too. I am worried if he is not happy in our marriage,could that make him more likely to continue?

Maria
7:55 pm February 26th, 2014

I am 70 year old mother of a 50 year old son. I am desvasted, do not know what to do. My son lives in a different country. I visit him every 1-2 years. I can not sponsor him, I do not cuality. He has made many bad decisions in his life. I sponsored him when he was 11 but left this country when he got a girl pregnat at the age of 18. It was my fault to not have obliged him to take responsibility, after that he had other 3 daughters. He is very smart, and has been very hansome but in the last 1-2 years and when his last lady left him, he is very desiterested, in work, in life etc. He is suffering, and I know he is on drugs by the things I hear. I am desperate, I help financially with advices, I love him very much, He deny that he is using drugs, but people said he is. I do not want to abandon him, is my only child. I do not know where to go, sometimes I feel very very helpless, I do not sleep, I cry a lot. The family were he lives do not want to do anything unless there is money involve, I do not trust them either.
Please help

12:00 pm February 27th, 2014

Hello Maria. Are the social services in the country where your son lives? If so, consult with a social worker in order to identify next steps to bring him into treatment. Being so far away is very difficult. Do you have any social or emotional support? Have you looked into Al-Anon or Narc-Anon? Have you seen a psychologist to address your issues of anxiety, fear, or possible enabling? These are all steps that you can take to look after your own emotional health. My heart goes out to you.

Maria
1:39 pm February 27th, 2014

Thanks for you reply; In the country my son lives there is not social services, is all about money.
I have not mentioned this problem to any one here, I am alone, I have not contacted any one I am in Toronto, Canada. I am ready to go where ever I have to go, I have not seen psychologists. I have dealt with this problem so far on my own.
I do need to talk to some one here, some one that can tell me what to do, I need some one that is willing to listen to me and advice me. I feel guilty and emotionally stress out.
Thank you

10:09 am February 28th, 2014

Hello Maria. I agree with you. Reach out for help where you are in Toronto. I believe that there are mental health and social services that can assist you. I wish you the very best. To you and your son (I have a son, too).

Dr Todd Fetter
3:01 pm April 17th, 2014

Research has shown that the A1 Allele D2 Dopamine Receptor Defect is the determining factor in additive behaviors.

lil missy me 73
2:22 pm May 21st, 2014

He is a iv drug user of hydromorphs an meth ..  for three years I have cried begged n tried to fix my husband .. now last night he got picked up on his 9th charge this year .. he wants bailed out today .. what do I do 
I have been up all night crying feeling so guilty an wrong. .

Sam
10:31 am May 22nd, 2014

I am not proud of this fact but need to speak out. I was a drug user for many years, used two weeks ago. I have been very selfish and without been responsible. my Son’s age 21 at present, were brought up in a home of addiction, violence. they have seen it all. they now both use drugs, the one worse than the other. I am having problems with him. we have smoked weed together. I am ashamed of what I have done, been trying to quit many a times. recently I have a had a very rude awakening and have decided in my heart as well as in my actions that this is it. I am done. I cant express not because I “feel” bad but because I know this is the most disgusting way a child should grow up and have learned from the parents ways. I deserve the death penalty I know but I am determined to make a change for myself and for them.. sorry is to late, action is taking place.

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