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What Causes Addiction?



Addiction is something that shows no preference for geographic boundaries, age or sex, ethnic background, or any other factor. It is something that can strike anywhere, any time. And in fact, the prevalence of addiction all across the world has been on the increase for quite a while. This begs the question: what causes addiction?

The medical and scientific communities have been grappling with this question for years, understanding that answering it will enable us to hopefully develop methods to prevent it. Yet an answer has proved elusive over the years. Perhaps the biggest reason is the fact that those actually looking for the answer tend to disagree.

Before going any further, it must be noted that addiction can involve any number of things, including:

  • alcohol

  • illicit drugs

  • over-the-counter medications

  • prescription medications

  • household solvents and other chemicals

  • behaviours – i.e. gambling, sex, overeating, etc.

Physical and Psychological Addictions

The first place to start in addressing the causes of addiction is to define the differences between the physical and psychological. The physical part of the equation is much easier to understand.

In almost every case of substance addiction, the drugs or alcohol stimulate a specific chemical reaction in the brain, which results in feelings of pleasure. It is the desire for those feelings of pleasure that encourage the abuser to continue using his/her substances of choice.

As time goes on, those substances cause other physiological changes, which, without continued drug or alcohol use, will lead to very uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms. An addict must continue or face the consequences.

Psychological addiction is a much different animal. It is clearly demonstrated, among other ways, in an irrational belief that the addictive substances are the only thing making life remotely tolerable. Many addicts mistakenly believe that coming clean will plunge them into an intolerable life of misery and depression.

What causes psychological dependence is unclear. But whether an addiction is chemical or behavioural, the psychological part of the problem is often more difficult to break. For example, where detox can typically be completed in about a week, rehab takes months to be successful.

Genetic Controversy

Some in the medical and psychiatric communities believe genetics has a role to play in addiction. They cite the fact that alcoholics, for example, are four times more likely to produce children who also abuse alcohol. It also turns out that nearly 75% of drug addicts also abuse alcohol.

Unfortunately, no definitive ‘addiction gene’ has ever been found. Preliminary research into the genetic question revealed alcoholics in the same family do carry some similar genes, but those genes have never been shown to indicate a predisposition to alcoholism among carriers. The same can be said about drug addiction.

Learned Behaviour

Those who do not quite fully agree with the genetic theory cite another possible reason to explain what appears to be hereditary: learned behaviour. In other words, it could be that the alcoholic produces children who also abuse alcohol because they (the kids) learned that behaviour from the parents.

Those who believe in the learned behaviour theory explain it as being no different from any other behaviour. If a father works out his stress by playing sports for example, his son is likely to learn to do the same thing – through both observation and participation. The same could be true with alcohol or substance abuse.

The Addiction Process

Regardless of whether or not genetics or learned behaviour is primarily responsible for addiction, the process of becoming an addict is similar among all cases. The process is as follows:

  • Experimentation – An individual will have his/her first drink or hit on an experimental basis. Perhaps a friend or relative will recommend the substance as a way to make the person feel good or forget about some sort of crisis he or she is currently experiencing.

  • The Return – Provided the individual enjoyed the feelings induced by the drugs or alcohol, he or she is likely to try a second time in order to see if they repeat. This ‘return visit’ is the open door to addiction. If the same pleasurable feelings are repeated, the individual is likely to return to the alcohol or drugs whenever he/she desires to feel good.

  • Repetition – As a casual drug or alcohol user, the individual may repeat the experience only when he or she is feeling especially stressed. However, they soon discover they need more of the drug or alcohol to produce the same pleasurable feelings. This is known as tolerance. The repetitiveness of drug and alcohol abuse leads to tolerance and, eventually, addiction.

  • Addiction – At the point where tolerance reaches critical mass (i.e. the individual can never get enough), the drug and alcohol abuser has graduated to addiction. Their whole life is consumed by the need for drugs or alcohol because going without it leads to withdrawal. At this point, he or she is likely beyond any rational thinking on the subject.

Tolerance Concerns

The principle of tolerance is one in which the physical body is so used to the substance being abused that it no longer responds to the same amount of drugs or alcohol. The user must consume greater amounts in order to stimulate the pleasurable feelings he or she is used to. Yet interestingly enough, tolerance concerns are also observed among those who were addicted to certain behaviours.

Take sex addiction, for example. In the early stages of addiction, the individual may be content to ‘get his/her fix’ through magazines or videos. However, after a while, that type of stimuli seems rather tame. From there he/she moves on to other forms of adult entertainment including adult clubs and pornographic websites. As their tolerance grows, they need to continually seek out new experiences to satisfy themselves.

If there is any single factor that causes addiction more than any other does, it is probably the principle of tolerance. All addictions are based on a desire to enjoy the feelings of pleasure the substance or behaviour produces. Nevertheless, tolerance dictates those substances or behaviours be increased as time goes on. Tolerance is what makes addicts out of abusers.

If you are currently suffering from any sort of chemical or behavioural addiction, you need to know there is a way out. You don’t have to continue living the way you do. By getting in touch with us, you can take that first step toward recovery today. We’ll help you find treatment that’s right for you; treatment that will enable you to break free of your addiction and regain your life.

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