How and Why Do People Get Addicted to Drugs?

Posted on January 4, 2022

head consisting of drugs and alcohol depicting addiction

The medical profession has recognized addiction as a chronic brain disease for decades. Treatment cannot cure most chronic diseases, including addiction. However, many of those addicted to drugs can learn to manage their condition and experience a better quality of life.

Unlike chronic diseases like diabetes or arthritis, people addicted to drugs or alcohol continue to be unfairly stigmatized. Rather than referring to someone as an addict, mental health professionals encourage communities and families to recognize that person as having a treatable substance use disorder.

The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) defines addiction as:

A treatable, chronic medical disease involving complex interactions among brain circuits, genetics, the environment, and an individual’s life experiences. People with addiction use substances or engage in compulsive behaviors and often continue despite harmful consequences.

Drug addiction is not limited to illegal substances. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warn that prescription drug abuse is an epidemic in the United States and is now the country’s leading source of drug addiction. It is startling to note that the U.S. consumes 75% of the world’s prescription drugs.

Because addiction affects the brain, it is unlikely an addicted person can stop using drugs without professional help. Therefore, it is essential for people struggling with addiction and their families to understand that addiction is treatable. The family of an addicted individual often plays a crucial role in getting their loved one into a recovery program.

To help an addicted loved one, it’s essential to understand how and why some people develop a drug addiction in the first place.

How and Why Do People Become Addicted to Drugs

As noted in the ASAM definition, addiction often involves a combination of factors, including a person’s brain circuitry, genetics, environment, and life experiences. Additional risk factors may include mental illness, chronic pain, and the developmental stage in which they first use substances, especially in adolescents. The more risk factors a person has, the more likely they will develop an addiction.

Let’s review each risk factor in more detail.

Brain circuitry

Addictive substances interfere with the normal function of the brain’s pleasure and reward center. Alcohol and addictive drugs cause a surge in dopamine, serotonin, and other chemicals that regulate mood. This causes a temporary sense of euphoria and well-being in the drug user. Although “feel good” chemicals increase naturally in response to a pleasurable experience, addictive substances trigger a much greater response, creating a powerful desire to repeat the experience.


Decades of research confirm that addiction “runs in families,” but experts agree that other factors also have a substantial impact on whether a person will develop addictive behavior.

Addiction is not inevitable for those raised by family members with drug or alcohol use disorders or mental illness. But genetics does play a role in addictive tendencies. While certain inherited gene variations may account for about half a person’s risk for addiction, gender, ethnicity, geographic location, history of trauma, and mental illness also play essential roles.

Environment and life experiences

The people, events, and environment a person experiences during childhood significantly impact the risk for addiction. Those exposed to physical or sexual abuse, neglect, family members who abuse drugs or alcohol, financial difficulties, peer pressure, and unsafe communities all have an increased risk of developing an addiction.

As adults, environment and life experiences continue to impact a person’s risk for addictive behavior. Adults may continue to be influenced by the behaviors of others, including that of their family, friends, and co-workers.

If an individual’s social network consists of people who abuse drugs and engage in activities focused on drug use, they are much more likely to engage in addictive behavior. People, places, and activities associated with past addictive behavior are intense triggers for anyone in recovery.

Childhood stress and living as an adult in a stressful environment can increase someone’s risk of addiction, especially if they struggle with poor coping skills. This is because chronic stress has a powerful impact on physical and mental health. Stress not only heightens fear, anxiety, and depression, but it can also trigger nightmares or traumatic memories. Over time, stress can cause chronically elevated heart rate and blood pressure, digestive problems, immune system suppression, and more. Studies have found many addicted people attempt to “self-medicate” with drugs to feel better.

Chronic pain

Doctors diagnose pain as chronic when it has persisted for twelve weeks or longer. Despite being highly addictive, doctors often prescribe opioids to manage chronic pain.

If used short-term and as prescribed, opioids are effective. However, like other addictive substances, opioids affect brain pathways. Soon, the user must take increasingly higher doses to achieve pain relief as the prescribed dosage is no longer sufficient. Pain sufferers begin to abuse and misuse prescribed drugs and may turn to the illegal drug market to satisfy their needs.

Mental health issues

Mental illness and substance use disorders frequently co-occur, known clinically as dual diagnosis. The 2020 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that 17 million U.S. adults experienced mental illness and a co-occurring substance use disorder.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) states, “More than one in four adults living with serious mental health problems also has a substance use problem.” Experts find depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, and personality disorders are the mental health issues that most commonly co-occur with substance use disorders.

Many people self-medicate with drugs to escape physical and emotional pain. As discussed, emotional pain and the root causes of mental illness often develop during early childhood and carry into adulthood.

People who suffer from trauma later in life are also vulnerable to dual diagnosis challenges. Experiences like combat, natural disasters, domestic violence, physical assault, serious accidents, terrorism, or other threatening events can all lead to mental health issues that trigger addictive behavior.

Age-related developmental risks

Studies find those who begin drug use during adolescence have a greater risk for addiction. Other risk factors for young people include lack of parental oversight, geographic location, prenatal contact with addictive substances, and peer drug use.

Because the adolescent brain is not yet fully developed, drugs’ effects on neural pathways are more pronounced. Drug use in young people affects the part of the brain associated with self-control, judgment, and decision making, increasing the risk of risky behavior and addiction.

Overcome Addiction with Professional Treatment

The most successful treatment plans for addiction recovery typically include:

  • Medically supervised detoxification, as withdrawal effects can be severe and dangerous.
  • Inpatient or intensive outpatient rehabilitation. Effective programs include individual, group, and family counseling, behavioral health services, and medication-assisted treatment (MAT).
  • Use of evidence-based treatment approaches like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
  • Treatment of both mental illness and substance use disorder in dual diagnosis cases.
  • Ongoing support and assistance after the patient completes the in-clinic program, including psychiatric and medication services as needed.
  • Alumni and peer support services.

Rising Phoenix Wellness Services

Rising Phoenix is a licensed mental health and substance abuse intensive outpatient program (IOP) in Scottsdale, Arizona. Our expert, compassionate team provides a full continuum of care for individuals struggling with substance use disorders, mental health, or dual diagnosis disorders.

We believe everyone is unique and design a treatment plan that fits each client’s needs. Our team is skilled in scientifically proven, evidence-based approaches to addiction recovery and carefully incorporates the strategies most likely to benefit the person in recovery.

We invite you to contact Rising Phoenix to learn more about our addiction recovery, mental health, and dual diagnosis treatment programs.

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