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Addiction is a very complex disease that effects everyone differently. Understanding the causes of this disease is one of the first steps to recovery.What often begins as experimentation can snowball into a substance abuse disorder. Years of advancements in medical research and therapy have painted a much clearer picture of drug abuse and the causes of addiction. 

What is addiction?

The American Psychiatric Association defines addiction as “a complex condition, a brain disease that is manifested by compulsive substance use despite harmful consequence.” For someone who struggles with an addiction to drugs and alcohol, it is impossible to quit even when they want to. Just like other brain diseases, addiction impairs daily functions and affects the everyday life of the individual.

What causes addiction?

While no one knows the exact cause of addiction, research shows a combination of genetic, environmental, and behavioral factors that cause substance use disorders. Even though the first use of drugs or other substances may be a choice, addiction is anything but a choice. Once the brain is affected by drugs and alcohol, an individual is no longer in control over using drugs and alcohol.

In psychology, there has been a long debate of nature versus nurture, whether someone’s genes (nature) or someone’s environment and how they were raised (nurture) is more influential in the development of a person. The short answer is both of these factors play a significant role in someone’s life, and the conversation about drug and alcohol addiction is no exception.

Genetic Causes of Drug and Alcohol Addiction

When researchers sought to identify a genetic predisposition for alcoholism or substance abuse, they research identical and fraternal twins. In a 1999 study of 861 identical and 653 fraternal twins, the researchers found an increased probability that both identical twins were more likely to be addicted to alcohol even if one became addicted first. Identical twins share all of their genes with one another.

Fraternal (not identical) twins share less of the same genetic material. They showed the opposite result in the study. If one twin suffered from addiction, it was less likely the other twin also suffered. This proved a genetic component to alcoholism. Another study showed that if a parent struggles with addiction, it is eight times more likely that their child will suffer from addiction.

Evolution has shaped the brain to repeat pleasurable experiences. When a person uses drugs or alcohol, they are seeking the pleasant feelings drugs produce. Even though addiction may be determined by genetics before birth, this genetic predisposition does not determine your destiny. Some people who are genetically predisposed never use drugs or alcohol; thus, genetics are not fate.

Environmental Causes of Drug and Alcohol Addiction

The environment someone was raised in is the other side of the nature versus nurture equation. One of the strongest external influences for alcoholism is early life experience. While this may relate to parental genetics – parenting style, family interactions, and supervision level are all parts of the addiction puzzle. According to Dr. Adi Jaffe, “Authoritarian and avoidant parenting, exposure to physical/emotional/sexual abuse, and divorce have all been associated with an increased likelihood of substance use problems later in life.”

In addition to the family, culture is also a major external factor. Different cultures, religions, geographic areas, and environments all treat addiction differently and cause different behaviors. Some of the cultural and religious-based triggers of addiction, according to Dr. Adi Jaffe, include the “geographical area in which you grow up, religious beliefs prevalent in your culture, early experiences and teachings related to shame, participation in (or exclusion from) cultural or religious activities.”

Social situations, such as peer pressure, can also lead to substance abuse and addiction. The sense of belonging and emotional relief is often a significant reason people start to drink heavily. Undiagnosed mental illness can also play a part where someone “self-medicates” for relief of symptoms.

Media also has a considerable influence on addiction. An individual’s behaviors can reflect what they see in the media. Video games, shows, and movies that illustrate substance abuse and glorify unrealistic goals can impact a person. If someone, especially a child or teenager, regularly consumes media that portrays violence and addiction, it can lead to them developing unhealthy coping mechanisms, like alcohol or drug abuse.

Addiction and the Brain

Multiple factors can lead to an alcohol or substance use disorder. Once this happens, the brain’s frontal cortex is rewired and alters reward, motivation, and memory. With these systems down, the brain faces modified impulse control and judgment and the inability to stop abusing substances an individual may want to stop using. By understanding the causes of addiction, individuals can realize addiction is not their fault and can begin the road to recovery.

Are you or a loved one suffering from drug addiction or alcohol addiction? You are not alone. We are here for you, and we are here to help.