Why do people become addicted?

Addiction is a complex and confusing disorder. Why do some people become addicted to substances or behaviors and others don’t? We try to explain why here.

minute read
Reviewed by: Dr. Manish Mishra, MBBS

ARTICLE OVERVIEW: Addiction is a chronic brain disease. But, what are the reasons why some people get addicted while others not? Major factors that lead to addiction include a person’s unique genetic makeup, their environment, and the person’s psycho-social development. Learn more here.


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.


Most people do not understand the concept of addiction: how and why some people get addicted, and others not. Most often, it is assumed that addicts lack moral principles or they just don’t want to change their behavior. They just don’t want to say NO to drugs. They are too weak to quit.

But, have you ever met a person who wants to become an addict? Have you ever overheard a young a boy or a girl ever say, “I want to be an addict when I grow up?”

Addiction is a complex disease, and ending it takes more than a strong will to stop using substances. This is because addiction is centered in the brain. In fact, scientists are beginning to see addiction as a chronic brain disease that changes the way the brain functions. To this end, the National Institute on Drug Abuse defines addiction as:

“A chronic disease characterized by drug seeking and use that is compulsive, or difficult to control, despite harmful consequences.”

Dr. Maureen Boyle, a public health advisor at NIDA, says: “Addiction is a biopsychosocial disorder. It’s a combination of your genetics, your neurobiology and how that interacts with psychological and social factors.” This means that addiction is like any other chronic disease such as diabetes, hypertension, or asthma, and it can be prevented and treated.

Brain Changes

Substance use hijacks the brain by change its function. How?

There are three key components of the brain involved in substance abuse:

  1. The basal ganglia: controls the rewarding, or pleasurable effects.
  2. The extended amygdala: is responsible for causing stress, anxiety, and irritability that typically accompany withdrawal.
  3. The prefrontal cortex: controls the executive function such as making decisions, ability to organize thoughts , manage time, etc.

These brain areas serve a critical role in helping people to survive. For instance, when people eat, the chemicals in the basal ganglia produce pleasure, and motivate the person to repeat the action. When in danger, the extended amygdala turns on “fight or flight” responses. Drugs effectively change the natural ways that these brain areas work; some functions become exaggerated while others are dulled.

Stages of Addiction

Addiction is a repeating cycle of three stages. Each stage is connected with one of the three brain areas:

1. Binge/Intoxication. The individual is using substances, and experience pleasure (the basal ganglia).
2. Withdrawal/Negative. This stage happens when a person stop using substances, and s/he experience negative symptoms caused by the absence of the substance. The body is under huge stress to get the substance. (the extended amygdala)
3. Preoccupation/Anticipation. The last stage is when the person makes decision to use again, and seeks his/her drug of choice. (the prefrontal cortex)

Find more information on the neurobiology of substance abuse in 2015 Facing Addiction In America: The Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health here.

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.

In particular, many drugs affects the ‘reward circuit’ of the brain by releasing dopamine. This system controls the ability to feel pleasure, and motivates a person to repeat the action that cause pleasure. 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:

  • Activating nerve cells to send abnormal messages.
  • Preventing recycling of brain chemicals.
  • Over producing 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.

Add to that withdrawal symptoms that come from drug dependence…and you have a chemical battle going on in the brain! After continued use of drugs, the brain accepts the presence of the substance as normal. So, when the individual tries to stop using or lowers the dose, the body itself fights to remain its “normal state” by causing withdrawal symptoms. Often, when the substance or behavior is not present, an addict will do almost anything to feel “normal” again.

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.


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 three major standout reasons for addiction:

1. Biology (nature): Addiction is thought to be influenced somewhat by genes. Genetics make some people more vulnerable to addiction than others. Moreover, the presence of some sort of mental disorder may influence risk for addiction.

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

3. Development (habits): Even though using substances at any age can lead to addiction, it is know that if a person starts using drugs at earlier age, it is more likely they will become addicted. This is risky for teens because parts in their brain that controls judgment, decision making process, and self-control are still developing.

But, anyone can become addicted…

Signs of a Problem

Some of the signs that point to a substance use problem include:

  • Neglecting important areas of life (work, home, school responsibilities) for the drug.
  • Continued use despite obvious harms.
  • Using the drug of choice in larger doses and for a longer period then intended.
  • Unable to cut down/or stop even though you want to.
  • Spending more time obtaining, using, and recovering from th effects of the drug use.
  • Cravings for the drug.
  • Experience withdrawal symptoms when drug level drops.

If one or more of these sentences are true, you may need professional help to diagnosis the severity of the addiction. Find more info on diagnosing any addiction in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual Of Mental Disorders (DSM V) here. Or, seek professional help from any of the following providers:

  • A family doctor or general physician.
  • A psychologist.
  • A psychiatrist.
  • A medical doctor trained in addiction medicine.


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. In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 5.4 percent of the population worldwide struggles with alcohol and illicit drug use.

In the U.S. the National Survey on Drug Abuse and Health reported that over 22 million people aged 12 or older has a substance use disorder in 2016. The numbers are break down into two main categories: alcohol and drug problems.

  • 15.1 million people aged 12+ had an alcohol use disorder in 2016.
  • 7.4 million people aged 12+ had an illicit drug use disorder in 2016.

Furthermore, the National Institute on Drug Abuse reported in 2016 startling results: 64,000 drug overdose deaths occurred in 2016.

So, why wait?

Don’t become a statistic.

Seek help for you or a loved one ASAP!

Don’t Hesitate To Ask!

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
NIH: Facing Addiction in America: The Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health 
AJP: The neural basis of addiction
EAP: Addiction: Not just drugs and alcohol. Beware of gambling, sex, the internet, even Exercise!
NCBI: The addicted brain: understanding the neurophysiological mechanisms of addictive disorders
NCBI: The neural basis of addiction
NIDA: Understanding drug use and addiction
NIDA FOR TEENS: Brain and addiction
NIH: Biology of Addiction
About the author
Lee Weber is a published author, medical writer, and woman in long-term recovery from addiction. Her latest book, The Definitive Guide to Addiction Interventions is set to reach university bookstores in early 2019.
Medical Reviewers
Dr. Manish Mishra, MBBS serves as the Chief Medical Officer of the Texas Healt...

All of the information on this page has been reviewed and verified by a licensed medical professional.


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  1. My boyfriend of 5 years is addicted to different narcotics, he started with xanax, then coke, and now it’s Oxycontin. We dated for 3 years, then the drugs became an issue, we broke up, then he seemed to have stopped, and now he’s using again. I’m terrified that it is only going to get worse, and I don’t know what to do. Both of his parents are retired addicts, so his genetics are not in his favor. I myself do not do drugs, and do love him, however also need to do what’s best for me. His parents are aware of the issues and do not intervene at all. Part of me wants to let him learn on his own, and the other part of me wants to do everything I can to get the old him back, the person I fell in love with, not this drug addicted person.

  2. I’ve a son of 16 and I doubt him taking drugs and on alcohol.he never listen to me and come home late.sometimes he get violent.whatcan I do about it

    1. Hi Ramesh. Kids, especially when they are teenagers are tough to control or talk to. If you’d like to drug test your son, so you can find out for sure if he is using any drugs or alcohol, read here: http://alcohol.addictionblog.org/can-i-drug-test-my-child-or-teen/

      Also, there are ways you can help yourself and your child navigate through the period of teen substance abuse. Here is more knowledge around that issue: https://addictionblog.org/treatment/how-to-help-my-child-with-addiction/

      Hope this helps!

  3. Hi
    My partner is an addict he goes for months without and than it starts again a few months later, i know he is an addict, because there is no such thing a s a part time addict, he admitted that he does it, but says he does not need help as he always stops on his own, only thing his he keeps going back, please help as i am afraid this will escalate he has been sober for a few days so i need help while he is sober and i can speak to him while he is of sober mind and judgement.

    1. Hi Suzanne. First, I suggest that you look into the CRAFT model for families and interventions. One NGO called Allies in Recovery has some online reading that can help: http://alliesinrecovery.net/about-craft/
      Moreover, our contributor Amanda Andruzzi, speaks from a personal experience as an ex-wife of an addict. Feel free to leave a comment on some of her articles, she will respond personally and promptly: https://addictionblog.org/author/amanda/
      Also, you may consider check out some rehab options for your partner. So, download our free e-book The Definitive Guide to Rehab that can help you choose the right rehab for him: https://addictionblog.org/ebooks/the-definitive-guide-to-rehab/
      Finally, you may call the helpline displayed on our website to speak with a trusted treatment consultant.

  4. This whole thing is dumb people become addicted because the brain becomes use to a substance or an act and subtly rewires itself to try and repeat the habits. In the case of drugs, drugs make your brain used to being a certain way and when the brain gets accustomed to the drug and is brought back to reality it trys to regain what it is used to ergo continued use of drugs.

  5. 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.

  6. 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. .

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

  8. 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).

  9. 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. 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.

  11. 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. 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?

  13. 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.

  14. 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?

  15. 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

  16. 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.

  17. 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.

  18. 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?

  19. 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?

  20. 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

  21. 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?

  22. 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…

  23. 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.

  24. 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.

  25. 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.

  26. 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.

  27. 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.

  28. 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.

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