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What Causes Someone To Develop a Substance Use Disorder?

Posted on 04/10/20: Addiction Prevention

Addiction doesn’t discriminate. Anyone can become addicted to any substance at any time. Many people are surprised to learn that someone they know or are close to struggles with substance abuse issues, because we always think “that could never happen to me or anyone in my circle!” People always think they’re in control until they’re not. This is the nature of addiction. But how does it happen exactly? What are the causes? And how can we prevent it? We will address these questions and more in this article. 

How We Understand Addiction

The word “addiction” is derived from the Latin term for “bound to” or “enslaved by”. When a person develops an addiction, they become so dependent on it to function, that their substance of choice controls their entire life. But it wasn’t always seen that way. In fact, in the 1930s, doctors and medical professionals thought addiction was the result of amoral and deviant personalities. In their eyes, the people who became addicted to substances simply lacked the moral judgment and willpower to quit. The solution at the time was to punish the users or attempt to force them to break their habit. But luckily, after years of research, the scientific community has now seen the effects that drugs have on the actual chemistry of the brain. This, unfortunately, does mean that anyone and everyone is susceptible to developing a substance abuse disorder. However, now that we understand addiction better from a scientific standpoint, advances in treatment methods and societal viewpoints have greatly evolved. This is good news for the community!

In addition, the research showed that substances weren’t the only thing that could cause addiction. People could also become addicted to things like shopping, gambling, pornography, etc, which would create a shift in the chemical balance of the brain despite not contributing any sort of chemicals to the body (Harvard Health Publishing). This shows that it’s not necessarily the chemicals within substances themselves that cause addiction, but rather the way the brain’s reward center is stimulated.

How Addiction Develops in the Brain

Our 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 process

Drugs 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. 


This, 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. 

External Causes of Addiction


There 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 Skills

Another important factor in whether or not a person develops an addiction due to stress 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. 


Studies 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. A look into a person’s genetic history can tell your healthcare provider if they need to adjust or change treatment based on any number of factors. 


Simple exposure to drugs in the household can also increase a person’s likelihood to become addicted. 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. 

Anyone can develop a substance abuse disorder, but that also means that anyone can recover from one. Because addiction causes changes in your brain, getting sober can be difficult. But, going through detox and receiving mental health support can make a world of difference. 

If you or someone you know needs help with addiction, contact Sober Living of AZ now to get the help you need. Sober Living offers an acclaimed recovery environment that merges upscale and luxury accommodations with affordability, clinical expertise and an unwavering commitment to patient care and aftercare. Call us now at 602-737-2458.

Content for Scottsdale Recovery Center and Arizona Addiction Recovery Centers created by Cohn Media, LLC. Passionate and creative writing and broadcasting, covering the following industries: addiction rehab, health care, entertainment, technology and advocate of clear communication, positivity and humanity at its best.

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