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Understanding the Causes of Drug Addiction

Medically Verified: 2/1/24

Medical Reviewer

Chief Editor

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

Whether you or a loved one has a problem with drugs, you might be curious about the underlying causes of drug addiction. After all, some people can try a drug or take a medication without abusing or becoming addicted to it, while others find it impossible to stop. Addiction, formally referred to as substance use disorder, is a disease of the mind and body characterized by uncontrollable and habitual drug use. Once a person is addicted to a substance, he or she will feel extreme compulsions to use the drug despite the potential consequences.

In many cases, addiction starts off slowly and it is easy to conceal. It may start with trying a new drug or getting prescribed a new medication. However, by the time most people realize they have a problem, it is too difficult to quit without professional help. The amount of time it takes a person to become addicted, the risk of addiction, and the severity of a person’s addiction depend on many factors. For example, people who abuse meth or heroin for several years may have a more severe addiction than someone who is dependent on marijuana.

By understanding the causes of drug addiction, what makes people want to use drugs, and who is more susceptible to substance abuse, you can better conceptualize the disease of addiction.

Common Underlying Causes of Drug Addiction

Similar to other physical and mental health factors, there are underlying causes that contribute to drug addiction. These causes can be broken down into three categories: genetics, environment, and mental health.


Believe it or not, your genes play a huge role in the way your body and brain process and react to mood or mind-altering substances. Certain genes actually slow down or speed up the development of substance use disorder. In fact, genetics have so much to do with addiction that they determine nearly 50% of a person’s risk for addiction.[1] This is why it is so common for adult children of alcoholics and addicts to grow up and start abusing substances themselves. Furthermore, the role of genetics helps explain why some people can abuse addictive drugs like cocaine without getting addicted while others become hooked after just one use.


Like genetics, there is a strong connection between environmental factors and substance use disorder. For example, people who try drugs or alcohol at an early age are more likely to develop addictive behaviors in the future. Since the brain is still developing, early substance use can affect neurotransmitters in the brain, causing a person to be unable to experience pleasure in natural ways. In addition, children who grow up in homes or neighborhoods where they are exposed to drug or alcohol use are also more likely to normalize substance abuse and ultimately become addicted.

Since the environment that people grow up in and spend time in influences their behavior, people who have friends who use drugs, live in low-income neighborhoods or don’t have access to social support are all more likely to abuse drugs.

Another environmental factor that is known to be an underlying cause of drug addiction is childhood neglect, trauma, and other adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). People who experience long-lasting trauma tend to develop certain survival mechanisms that help them cope. Many of these survival mechanisms ultimately stop working and can drive people towards drug or alcohol addiction.[2]

Mental Health

Lastly, mental health is another major cause of drug addiction. Whether a person suffers from depression, anxiety, PTSD, or any other mental illness, he or she might struggle to cope with the difficult symptoms. As a result, many people with mental illness turn to drugs or alcohol to cope. Although substance abuse might numb their emotions and reduce their symptoms in the beginning, it usually ends up making symptoms worse and causes a person to develop a dual diagnosis. The National Alliance on Mental Illness estimates that 50% of people with a substance use disorder also have a co-occurring mental health condition.[3]

Other Root Causes of Drug Addiction

While most people who suffer from substance use disorder have addiction in the family, a mental health condition, or past trauma/emotional difficulties, others do not. Sometimes, regular people who abuse addictive substances for long enough, such as cocaine, heroin, or meth, simply become physically and psychologically addicted to the substance.

Substance Abuse and Changes in the Brain

Long term abuse of any substance produces changes in the brain that affect the way people experience pleasure and make decisions. When functioning normally, the brain produces dopamine, serotonin, and other neurotransmitters that communicate with neurons to develop moods, emotions, thought processes, and behaviors. Since addictive substances produce an overflow of dopamine and stop the reuptake of the chemical, people eventually stop producing these feel-good hormones and chemicals on their own. Instead, they depend on the substance to feel good.

In the past, addiction was commonly thought of as a choice. However, with growing evidence among the scientific community of how substance abuse changes the brain, addiction is widely accepted as a disease today. Like other diseases, there are underlying causes of addiction, symptoms that one cannot control, and treatments that really work.

Treating the Roots of Addiction

In order to heal from drug addiction, one must identify and work through the underlying causes and conditions that contribute to their substance use. This typically requires professional rehabilitation under the guidance of addiction and mental health experts.

At Carolina Center for Recovery, we don’t just teach you how to stop using drugs and alcohol. We help you recognize why you are using drugs in the first place. In doing so, you can begin to work through unresolved issues or get treatment for an underlying condition that has gone ignored.

“With the love and support of your family and loved ones, we make sure to treat your addiction by understanding the root reasons behind it. We do everything in our power to help you succeed in breaking the cycle of addiction, and know that with the right kind of help, everyone is capable of healing.”

By providing highly individualized treatment plans, we are equipped to help you get past these difficulties and live a healthy, sober life. If you’re ready to stop and want drug treatment that works, contact us today.