The seeds of addiction can develop relatively quickly, or it can occur over a number of years. Anyone can develop a substance abuse problem or an addiction, although the majority of people who abuse drugs or alcohol—even those who use heavily—don’t develop an addiction.
Addiction almost always has underlying causes that must be addressed during treatment. The most common underlying causes of addiction are mental illness, stress, trauma, and genetics. We will explore these seeds of addiction and discuss what you can do to reduce your risk of becoming addicted to drugs or alcohol.
What Exactly Is Addiction?
The brain’s memory and reward centers play a major role in planting the seeds of addiction. When you use a psychoactive substance, it causes a dopamine release in the brain, resulting in feelings of pleasure. The brain remembers this feeling, and over time, the connection between drug or alcohol use and pleasure becomes stronger. At some point, changes in brain function cause intense cravings for the substance of abuse.
These cravings come from the same brain centers that lead us to seek out sex for procreation and food to keep us alive. The cravings are incredibly powerful, and they lead individuals to continue using a substance even as their life falls apart because of it. They may want to stop using or try to stop, but they find they can’t. Research shows that the majority of those who do quit on their own will return to using at some point.
Addiction is a progressive disease, which means it will grow worse over time. The National Institute on Drug Abuse stresses that in most cases, breaking the cycle of addiction, remission and relapse requires professional help.1 This is because the seeds of addiction must be addressed in order to successfully end it. Someone with an addiction must learn new ways of thinking and behaving, which essentially amounts to re-training the brain. Willpower and good intentions, NIDA points out, are rarely enough to end an addiction for the long-term, especially if stress, mental illness or trauma are at the heart of it.
Addiction and Dependence Are Not the Same Things
It’s important to note that dependence is not the same thing as addiction. Dependence is a physical reliance on drugs or alcohol characterized by withdrawal symptoms that set in when you stop using. Dependence is caused by changes in brain function and structure that lead to the brain operating more “normally” when drugs or alcohol are present than when they’re not. Addiction and dependence typically occur together, although it’s possible to be addicted without being dependent, and vice versa.
Addiction Begins with Substance Abuse
Substance abuse is characterized by using drugs in a way that causes problems in your life.2 These may include financial difficulties, relationship issues, legal problems and physical and mental health problems. Taking risks while under the influence, such as driving intoxicated or walking alone in a dangerous area at night, are also considered problems stemming from substance abuse.
People abuse substances for a variety of reasons, and these reasons are usually the same seeds of addiction, such as mental illness, stress, and trauma. Risk factors that increase the likelihood of developing an addiction include genetic, biological and psychological factors, environmental influences and abusing drugs or alcohol at an early age.3
While substance abuse is initially a choice, once it transitions to addiction, a choice is no longer a factor. This is the same for any chronic disease that develops due to lifestyle choices, such as diabetes and heart disease. Once these diseases develop, the only course of action is to manage the symptoms and make lifestyle changes that promote long-term recovery.
Seeds of Addiction: The Most Common Underlying Causes
The seeds of addiction are highly complex. An individual may have more than one underlying cause, and these must be addressed in order to effectively treat the addiction. For those who are at risk but haven’t yet developed an addiction, preemptively addressing the following risk factors can help prevent chronic abuse from transitioning to addiction.
Mental illness, including depression, anxiety, eating disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder, is one of the major seeds of addiction. More than half of those who abuse drugs or alcohol have an underlying mental disorder.4 Compared with the general population, people who are addicted to drugs are twice as likely to suffer from a mental illness, and those who have a mental illness are twice as likely to develop an addiction.
It’s often difficult to determine which came first—the addiction or the mental disorder. That’s because abusing drugs can worsen existing symptoms of a mental illness or even cause symptoms that didn’t previously exist. Additionally, a number of mental disorders often lead to drug abuse as a form of self-medication, such as when someone abuses alcohol to cope with anxiety or depression or uses marijuana to reduce symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Unfortunately, while drugs or alcohol may seem to help initially, they almost always worsen the mental illness.
When addiction and mental illness occur together, it’s known as a co-occurring disorder. Treating the addiction requires also treating the mental illness. Treating these together through a specialized program that integrates treatment is essential for successful recovery from the addiction. Known as a dual diagnosis program, this type of treatment program addresses each disorder in the context of the other and treats them simultaneously.
What you can do: If you suffer from a mental illness and use drugs or alcohol to cope, consider professional help. A combination of behavioral therapy and medication can dramatically improve symptoms of anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental illnesses. Medication re-establishes a balance in brain chemicals to alleviate symptoms, while therapy helps you develop essential coping skills and healthy behaviors to reduce symptoms and promote physical and mental well-being without drugs or alcohol.
Stress is one of the common seeds of addiction that can also cause a relapse of the addiction once it’s in remission. Some stress is good for us; it can enhance our motivation and lead to behavioral responses that produce a sense of accomplishment. However, chronic stress or the inability to cope with short-term stress can lead to substance abuse as a coping mechanism.
A study published in the journal Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences points to a number of studies that have found that increased negative stress leads to a decrease in behavior control and an increase in impulsiveness.5 The higher the stress, the greater the risk of these maladaptive behaviors, which can contribute to the development of an addiction. While drugs and alcohol can appear to reduce stress, they are pharmacological stressors that can further reduce your ability to cope with acute or chronic stress.
Examples of common stressors that can lead to chronic substance abuse or addiction include the loss of a relationship, interpersonal conflict, financial difficulties and problems at work. Because stress is an important factor for relapse, a major focus of addiction treatment is helping clients develop essential skills for coping with and reducing stress.
What you can do: Rather than medicating stress with drugs or alcohol, take steps to reduce your stress. Regular meditation and exercise not only reduce stress on the spot, but they also help improve your ability to cope with stress in the future. Deep breathing exercises immediately reduce stress hormone levels in your blood to bring about a sense of calmness. Addressing stressors in your life to reduce their impact and learning how to cope during stressful times without turning to drugs or alcohol can help prevent chronic substance abuse and addiction down the road.
Trauma, especially childhood trauma, affects the brain in indelible ways. It increases activity in the threat-detection centers in the brain, promoting feelings of anxiety, vulnerability, and fear. It affects the memory center so that memories of the event get trapped in a short-term loop instead of being sent into long-term storage, leaving you to re-live the experience in flashbacks and disturbing, intrusive thoughts. Your natural instincts for survival diminish cognitive processing, making it more difficult to inhibit behavior and leaving you more susceptible to mental illnesses like major depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Post-traumatic stress disorder is a common condition among those who are the victim of or witness to a traumatic event such as war, a natural disaster or physical or sexual violence. According to the National Center for PTSD, 10 percent of women and four percent of men will develop PTSD in their lifetime. Symptoms of PTSD include nightmares, flashbacks, anger, anxiety, and insomnia.
Trauma as one of the seeds of addiction is well-studied. Seventy percent of adolescents in treatment for addiction have a history of trauma, and 80 percent of women in treatment have been the victim of sexual or physical violence, with 59 percent of them suffering from PTSD, according to a study published in the journal Psychiatric Services.6 Another study of 381 adults in treatment for addiction found that 41 percent of the women and 42 percent of the men had elevated clinical symptoms of trauma, and 31 percent of the women and 16 percent of the men were diagnosed with PTSD.
A number of studies show that people with a history of trauma and those who have PTSD are likely to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol in an attempt to reduce the intensity of distressing thoughts and memories, curb nightmares and cope with feelings of anxiety and depression that occur as the result of trauma. Unfortunately, while substance use may offer relief initially, it almost always makes symptoms worse. For many, the substance abuse will lead to addiction.
What you can do: If you have a history of trauma or think you may have PTSD, therapy can help you work through the trauma and dramatically reduce intrusive thoughts, nightmares, anxiety, depression, fear and anger. Therapy can vastly improve the quality of your life and help you develop essential coping skills that will preclude the need for using drugs or alcohol to dampen negative emotions.
While you voluntarily make the initial choice to use drugs or alcohol, once you use them, the risk of developing an addiction is about 50 percent genetic, according to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.7 While no specific “addiction” gene has been identified, researchers have found a number of genes that affect your risk of developing an addiction.
A family history of addiction isn’t considered one of the seeds of addiction, because it doesn’t necessarily mean you will develop one yourself. Half the risk of addiction is attributed to factors like environment, biological considerations, parental influence and personal experiences with drugs or alcohol.
What you can do: If you have a family history of addiction and abuse drugs or alcohol, you may be more likely to develop an addiction. A drug counselor, therapist or treatment center can help you assess whether your drug or alcohol abuse has become or may become a problem. Therapy can offer strategies for controlling your substance use to help ensure an addiction doesn’t develop.
Know Where You Stand
You probably know whether you’re addicted to drugs or alcohol, characterized by the compulsive use of a substance despite negative consequences in your life. Maybe you don’t use compulsively, but you feel you use more than you should. Maybe you use every day, but you feel like you can quit if you want to. Maybe you don’t think you’re addicted, but a loved one seems to believe you are.
Knowing whether you’re addicted to drugs or alcohol or on a path that can plant the seeds of addiction can help you decide on the right course of action if you feel like you need help controlling your substance use.
Criteria for Substance Use Disorders
While substance abuse, addiction and dependence used to be separate diagnoses, the newest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders has combined these under the umbrella of “substance use disorders,” or SUDs. An SUD is diagnosed based on 11 criteria and is classified as mild, moderate or severe.
If you answer yes to two or three of the criteria, it indicates a mild substance use disorder. Meeting four to five criteria denotes a moderate SUD, and meeting six or more criteria indicates a severe SUD. The criteria are as follows:
In the past twelve months, have you:
- Taken a substance in larger amounts or for longer periods of time than you intended?
- Wanted to cut down or stop using but found that you were unable to?
- Spent a lot of time seeking, using and recovering from using a substance?
- Had strong cravings for drugs or alcohol?
- Repeatedly been unable to carry out your obligations at home, work or school due to your substance use?
- Continued to use drugs or alcohol despite the problems that resulted, including relationship, financial, health and legal problems?
- Lost interest in hobbies and activities you used to enjoy in favor of using drugs or alcohol?
- Repeatedly put your health and safety at risk while under the influence, such as driving intoxicated or having unsafe sex?
- Continued using drugs or alcohol despite related physical and mental health problems?
- Found that you need increasingly larger amounts of drugs or alcohol to get the desired effects?
- Experienced withdrawal symptoms upon stopping the use of drugs or alcohol, or continued to use just to avoid withdrawal symptoms?
How Treatment Helps
A high-quality treatment program utilizes a variety of traditional and complementary therapies to help you overcome a substance use disorder. The main focus of treatment is addressing the seeds of addiction or the issues that underlie the addiction and help you develop skills and strategies for coping with stress, cravings and other triggers.
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy, which is the cornerstone of treatment. You’ll learn to evaluate your thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and attitudes, identify those that are unhealthy and replace them with healthier ways of thinking and behaving. Cognitive-behavioral therapy arms you with the skills and strategies you need to effectively cope with triggers like stress and cravings.
- Motivational interviewing, which helps you find and engage your intrinsic motivation to change unhealthy behaviors. A goal-oriented and client-centered counseling style help you resolve any ambivalence or reluctance toward quitting and identify discrepancies between your current situation and your goals for the future.
- Family therapy, which addresses dysfunction in the family system. Through family therapy, family members learn how to communicate effectively, and they work through a variety of issues that impact the stability and happiness of the family.
Common complementary therapies include:
- Art therapy, which helps you express yourself and synthesize emotions through creative exercises. A large body of research shows that art therapy reduces stress and feelings of shame, and it helps heal emotional wounds through an increase in self-awareness and altering negative patterns of thinking and behaving.
- Meditation, which improves self-awareness and fosters self-reflection, promotes mindfulness and reduces stress, anxiety and depression. Regular meditation also helps your mind and body learn to respond better to stressors that can pose a risk for relapse.
- Biofeedback, which involves learning to control your body’s stress response through deep breathing exercises, visualization and other techniques. The body’s stress response includes elevated blood pressure and body temperature and higher muscle tension.
A high-quality treatment program addresses issues of mind, body and spirit. This holistic approach to recovery helps to ensure the best possible outcome.8 It focuses on coping skills, healthy lifestyle choices and finding purpose and meaning in life. It helps you improve your interpersonal relationships and your self-awareness for greater overall happiness and well-being, and it promotes goal-setting and other strategies that lead to self-fulfillment.
Addiction is a progressive disease, and without help, a mild substance use disorder can progress to a severe one, compromising your physical and mental health and well-being. Don’t wait for the seeds of addiction to take root in your life. The sooner you get help for any level of substance use disorder, the sooner you can get your life back on track and enjoy a brighter, happier future.
- Understanding Drug Use and Addiction. (2016, August). Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/understanding-drug-use-addiction
- Substance Use. (2016, January 31). Retrieved from http://umm.edu/health/medical/ency/articles/drug-abuse
- Who Develops Addiction? (2016, August 23). Retrieved from http://www.centeronaddiction.org/addiction/addiction-risk-factors
- Volkow, N. D. (2007, February 1). Addiction and Co-Occurring Mental Disorders. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/news-events/nida-notes/2007/02/addiction-co-occurring-mental-disorders
- Sinha, R. (2008, October). Chronic Stress, Drug Use, and Vulnerability to Addiction. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. 1141; 105-130. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2732004/
- Cohen, L. R. and Hien, D. A. (2006, January). Treatment Outcomes for Women With Substance Abuse and PTSD Who Have Experienced Complex Trauma. Psychiatric Services, 57(1), 100-106. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3688835/
- Family History and Genetics. (2015, April 25). Retrieved from https://www.ncadd.org/about-addiction/family-history-and-genetics
- Recovery and Recovery Support. (2015, October 5). Retrieved from https://www.samhsa.gov/recovery