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What Causes Drug Addiction?

A. Tom Horvath, Ph.D., ABPP, Kaushik Misra, Ph.D., Amy K. Epner, Ph.D., and Galen Morgan Cooper, Ph.D. , edited by C. E. Zupanick, Psy.D.

Drug addiction is a specific type of addiction. There is no one single cause of drug addiction. Instead, there are multiple causes that can be grouped into four basic categories. These four categories are: biological causes, psychological causes, socio-cultural causes, and spiritual causes. Psychologists call this the Bio-Psycho-Social-Spiritual Model of addiction. We generally understand these are all inter-related. Therefore, each of these four factors contributes in some manner to the formation of addiction.

The biological causes of drug addiction include each person's unique physiology and genetics. People differ in the degree to which they like or dislike a particular addictive substance or activity. Some people may enjoy a substance or activity so much that it becomes very tempting and difficult to resist. Another person would not experience this difficulty because they do not experience a similar enjoyment. Likewise, the ability to temper impulsive desires with rational thought is a brain function that varies among different people. Some people may have a deficiency in their capacity to resist certain types of impulses. Thus, these folks would be at greater risk for developing an addiction because of their genetic vulnerability. Oddly enough, even normal human brain functioning, and its chemistry, make people vulnerable to addiction. Our normal brain chemistry and functioning motivate us to repeat behaviors that are pleasurable (e.g., sex, eating). The repetition of these behaviors ensured our species survival. Unfortunately, it also makes human beings vulnerable to developing addictions to harmful substances and activities that are pleasurable.

Psychology also helps us to understand the causes of drug addiction. Addiction is a harmful behavior. Psychological research has helped us to understand why people repeat certain behaviors, even when these behaviors are harmful. This is because people learn to anticipate some benefit from the addiction even though it is harmful. These benefits can range from stress reduction, relief from boredom, pleasurable sensations, coping with negative feelings or situations, or simply the benefit of avoiding withdrawal symptoms. People have varying abilities to cope with unpleasant emotions or circumstances. When people have poor coping skills they are more vulnerable to addiction. Likewise, people have varying degrees of stress and varying skills in stress reduction. People with high stress, that lack stress reduction skills, are also more vulnerable to addiction. Psychological research also helps us to understand that motivation is critical. Without sufficient motivation, people cannot easily change unhealthy behaviors. Simply being aware of an alcohol problem is usually insufficient motivation to discontinue unhealthy behavior. However, psychologists can help strengthen people's motivation through therapy and specialized techniques. Many psychological disorders such as depression and anxiety often co-occur with addiction. These other psychological disorders make people more vulnerable to addiction. This is because people may use alcohol to temporarily relieve the unpleasant symptoms of these disorders.

Socio-cultural influences also contribute to the development of drug addiction. For our purposes, the term culture describes a group's learned and shared pattern of values and beliefs. These values and beliefs guide group members' behavior and their social interactions. When a culture accepts or tolerates drug use, the members of that culture are more vulnerable to addiction. The greatest social influence is the family. This is how culture is transmitted from one generation to the next. Children learn from their family members about drug use, or misuse.

Spirituality is another causal factor that can determine whether an addiction develops and flourishes. Spirituality reflects a belief that life has a meaning and purpose. This definition is inclusive and respectful. It includes the many different, specific beliefs that people have about that meaning and purpose. For some people, spirituality includes specific beliefs that there is something bigger and greater than our individual existence. People might call this a higher power; a God; many gods; the life force; the universe; Source; or Spirit (to name just a few). For other people, there is no higher power or religion attached to that belief. These people derive meaning and purpose through a personal set of values and goals. The lack of a meaning and purpose in life leads to a disconnection from ourselves and each other. As addiction progresses this disconnection increases. This disconnection causes a failure to live in harmony with the universal laws or principles that ordinarily guide our behavior. These specific universal laws and principles may vary according to different faiths and religions. Nonetheless, the lack of a spiritual anchor can also lead to the development of an addiction.

These four primary causes of alcoholism and other addictions are discussed in much greater detail in our topic center on addictions.


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