Common Reasons Why People Develop Addictions
05/14/20: Addiction RecoveryThough there are some well-adjusted individuals that just happen to try a substance at some point and get hooked, most of the time, long-term addiction is caused and sustained due to other issues in the person’s life. Trauma, stress, circumstances beyond our control, and even genetics can all play a role in why people develop addictions. Before we discuss the common issues that may lead a person down this dangerous path, we will explain a little further about how the brain actually changes when a person is addicted, making it difficult to just quit.
Addiction takes hold in the brainOur brain is responsible for all of our daily functioning, from speaking to eating, and even breathing. Some of these processes are automated, such as breathing and staying awake. Other, more complex processes, like having conversations, making decisions, etc are the result of a number of processes happening in tandem to cause your body to perform an action. The brain is made up of billions of cells called neurons, which are organized into circuits and networks that allow the brain to send signals. These neurons communicate by sending signals to each other by “firing” off information through the network to different parts of the brain, as well as the spinal cord, nerves, and peripheral nervous system.
Addiction messes up our brain’s natural processDrugs disrupt the regular processes of the brain by changing the way neurons send, receive, and process signals via neurotransmitters. Addictive drugs are so pleasurable to us because they flood the brain’s reward system with dopamine in a short amount of time, something that we cannot get via the natural process of the neurons. Meanwhile, the brain stores this information as pleasurable memories and creates a conditioned response to certain stimuli. Recent research suggests that dopamine not only contributes to the pleasure one feels when under the influence of a substance, but it also affects learning and memory, which play key roles in the transition from simply enjoying something to actually being addicted to it. The most widely accepted current theory about how addiction works, states that dopamine interacts with another neurotransmitter, glutamate, to take over the brain’s reward-related learning system. Addictive substances stimulate that circuit and overload it, which repeats every time the person uses. This causes nerve cells to react in a way that shifts the brain liking something into needing it. This, of course, is what leads to the intense desire to chase after and continue using whatever originally caused this connection to be made in our brains, manifesting as what we know as addiction.
What happens after addiction takes hold?After using the substance over the long-term, the effects become less pleasurable to the user. However, because the brain’s chemistry is now altered, the person continues to seek out the substance, because if they do not, they will experience withdrawal symptoms. Addiction is — in a large part — the body’s negative reaction to the absence of the substance, not necessarily to recreate the initial pleasurable symptoms. It becomes a matter of maintenance, in essence. Addictive drugs can release two to ten times the amount of dopamine that the brain naturally produces, and it does it more efficiently and reliably. However, there is a trade-off to this quick response, and that is that the brain receptors become overwhelmed with this overflow of neurotransmitters. As a response to this overload, the brain simply stops producing a normal amount of dopamine or even begins eliminating dopamine receptors.
ToleranceThis, of course, causes dopamine to have less impact on the brain’s reward center because the brain becomes numb to it. This is what is referred to as tolerance. Developing tolerance can be dangerous because most substance-addicted people combat tolerance by simply increasing their intake of the drug. In effect, they begin flooding their body with more and more of the substance over time. Perceived tolerance is what causes many people to overdose, especially when they have made an attempt to get clean and then go back to using the drug. This is because they had grown accustomed to taking a large amount, but in the time they were sober, their brain had begun to decrease its tolerance in an attempt to return to normal functioning. So then, if the user misjudges how much of the substance they can handle, they can cause serious harm to themselves or even death when they relapse.
Common reasons why people develop addictionsFinally, let’s dive deeper into some of the most common reasons why people develop addictions. Remember however, experiencing one or more of these does not necessarily mean the person will develop an addiction, just that they may be more at risk.
It has been reported that 90 percent of individuals in a behavioral healthcare setting have experienced trauma. As you can assume based on the high number, trauma is potent. This is because trauma often leads to high levels of stress. As we know, stress is one of the biggest contributing factors to developing an addiction. Drugs, alcohol, certain foods, and activities have the same effect of stimulating the brain’s reward center by releasing dopamine, causing us to experience a pleasurable response. The brain remembers the good feeling that the substance or activity caused, and it will instill a desire in you to continue seeking out whatever caused the response. These pleasurable experiences are especially desired when the person is also experiencing stress brought on by trauma, as the dopamine provides an escape from the negative feelings. Another important factor in whether or not a person develops an addiction due to trauma is if they have healthy coping skills. A lack of healthy coping skills is a big predictor of someone turning to drugs, alcohol, or other damaging methods of managing painful emotions. Drug withdrawal symptoms can worsen symptoms and results of trauma, making it extremely difficult to not only stop using the drug but also to heal from the trauma itself. This is why if you or a loved one are struggling with ill effects from trauma and addiction, it is crucial to seek help as quickly as possible so that you can begin the process of healing as soon as possible.
StressThere is strong evidence connecting chronic stress with the motivation to abuse drugs or alcohol. Stressful experiences during childhood such as physical and sexual abuse, neglect, domestic violence, family dysfunction, etc are strongly associated with an increased risk for addiction. In addition, unhappy marriages, dissatisfaction with employment, harassment, etc are often cited as major catalysts for addiction.
Drugs, alcohol, certain foods, and activities have the same effect of stimulating the brain’s reward center by releasing dopamine, causing us to experience a pleasurable response. The brain remembers the good feeling that the substance or activity caused, and it will instill a desire in you to continue seeking out whatever caused the response. These pleasurable experiences are especially desired when the person is also experiencing stress, as the dopamine provides an escape from the negative feelings that come along with chronic stress.
Poor Coping SkillsAnother important factor in why people develop addictions due to stress is if they lack healthy coping skills. A lack of healthy coping skills is a big predictor of someone turning to drugs, alcohol, or other damaging methods of managing painful emotions. Luckily, coping skills can be taught in therapy and learned over time.
GeneticsStudies that have examined identical twins, fraternal twins, adoptees, and siblings have found evidence that suggests that as much as 50 percent of a person’s risk of becoming addicted to drugs is dependent on his or her genetic makeup. One study in particular looked at 861 pairs of identical twins and 653 pairs of fraternal (non-identical) twins. They found that when one identical twin was addicted to alcohol, the other twin had a high chance of being addicted as well. However, when one non-identical twin was addicted to alcohol, the other twin did not appear to have an addiction. As a result, the study concluded that 50–60 percent of addiction is likely due to genetic factors, and that number has been confirmed by other studies as well. The other half has been attributed to stress or uncomfortable emotions and a lack of coping skills.
Knowing that genetics makes up over half of a person’s propensity for addiction can be a scary thought. However, don’t discount the power of strong coping skills and the ability to regulate and process emotions in a healthy way. Most people turn to substances because there is a lack of these capabilities in their life, and they are looking for other ways to cope with pain. But you can’t become addicted to something you have no desire to use because you are in a good place emotionally.
ExposureSimple exposure to drugs in the household can also increase a person’s likelihood to develop addictions. If a person’s parents or siblings, or other members who reside within the household are bringing drugs in and out of the home consistently, or even using in the presence of other family members, this can instill a stronger vulnerability in those others in the house. Parents who struggle with substance abuse issues are often unable to properly care for themselves, let alone their children. This leads to a situation where the children are being neglected, which can instill emotional issues and trauma. Unearthing and addressing past trauma is key to treating addiction, and those who have an addiction or mental health disorder as a result of things that occurred in their childhood will have different needs than those who may have experienced trauma later in life, or different kinds of trauma.
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