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Causes of Addiction

Factors that contribute to the onset of addiction

The risk factors that contribute to addiction are biological and environmental, and are usually combinations of both. Research on addiction indicates that drug abuse often begins in adolescence. There are several reasons for this. For one, the parts of the brain that control judgement, self-control, and future planning do not fully mature until young adulthood. As a result, the teen brain is wired for risk-taking and experimenting. Trying new things is part of the process of maturing and developing the brain's ability to evaluate risk and make decisions. Another important reason why drug use frequently begins in adolescence is that teens are often strongly influenced by their peers, who may convince them that "it's ok because everybody's doing it”. The good news is that teens can control factors that put them at risk of engaging in harmful behaviors, such as drug abuse. However, in order to do so, they need to understand what those risk factors are.

Biological factors

A person's unique biology - their genes, age, gender, and other factor - plays a role in the risk of experimentation with drugs and the possible onset of addiction. Biological factors that can contribute to someone's risk for drug abuse and addiction include:


You may have heard that alcohol and drug addiction can run in families. This is true, but just because someone in your family has struggled with addiction does not mean that you are destined to do the same. However, having a family member who has experienced addiction does mean that a person may be at increased risk of becoming addicted. Genes, combined with other factors, are estimated to contribute about 40% - 50% of the risk for drug addiction.

Development Stage

Research shows that the earlier a person begins to use drugs, the greater the risk for addiction later in life. There are likely many reasons for this, but one is that the human brain undergoes dramatic changes during adolescence, which continue into early adulthood. Teens' brains are especially at risk because they are still maturing. Drugs exert long-lasting influences on a developing brain that can increase a person's vulnerability to later drug abuse and addiction.

Sensitivity To Drugs

Have you ever wondered why some people can drink a caffeinated beverage and it has no effect on them, while others are bouncing off the walls and can't sleep? People have different sensitivities to a drug's effects - in fact, what one person likes, another may hate. These differences affect the likelihood that someone will continue to take drugs and become addicted to them.

The substance

Certain substances are more addictive than others, and risk of full-blown addiction is higher for drugs such as heroin, crack cocaine and methamphetamine because of their ability to create dependence after just a few uses.


Painkillers that are legitimately prescribed by the doctor following an illness or disease can cause the person to develop both physical and psychological dependencies. If the prescription is stopped, reduced or not increased as the individual's tolerance level increases, an inadvertent addiction can be caused. Sometimes the person does not realise they have an addiction until the substance is denied or reduced.

Mental illness/emotional disorders

Mental disorders, such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and others, may put people at greater risk of using drugs and becoming addicted. Many people suffering from these disorders, especially when undiagnosed or misdiagnosed, effectively self-medicate with drugs in the belief they make them feel better and more able to cope with life. Also, mental disorders affect the same brain circuits and chemicals as do drugs of abuse. The overlapping effects of a mental disorder and a drug may increase the risk for addiction.

Low frustration tolerance

One common factor found amongst addicts of all types is a low frustration tolerance. Addicts are highly susceptible to the negative effects of stress, often experiencing distress at a relatively low level of frustration. They become easily upset over everyday stress factors, creating a need for escape. They find this escape in their addiction.


Studies show differences in the way drugs affect male and female bodies, as well as how and why men and women use drugs. For example, women are more likely than men to become addicted to drugs designed to treat anxiety or sleeplessness, while men are more likely than women to abuse alcohol and marijuana. In the past, studies showed that, overall, there was a higher rate of drug use and addiction among men than among women. However, in recent years, this gender gap is closing—current studies show that equal numbers of male and female teens are reporting that they are using drugs. The consequences of this shifting pattern remain to be seen.


Ethnicity is a factor that has both biological and environmental components. For instance, some ethnic groups show different rates of metabolism of drugs (how drugs are broken down by the body), which can affect drug sensitivity. But there are also cultural factors that influence drug use, and societal factors that impact the consequences of drug use. For example, while overall drug use by African-Americans and Hispanics is lower compared to white Americans, the consequences—such as trouble with the law or risk for disease such as HIV/AIDS—disproportionately affect minorities.

Environmental factors

Environmental factors are related to a person's surroundings and the influences he or she lives with. Environmental factors that can contribute to someone's risk for drug abuse and addiction include:

Home and family

The home environment has an important impact on a person's risk for drug abuse and addiction. Teens are at greater risk if they live in chaotic homes where there is little parental or adult supervision. This type of home environment can be the result of parents or older family members who suffer from a mental disorder, engage in criminal behavior, or abuse drugs or alcohol. On the other hand, a nurturing home environment, as well as clear rules of conduct at home, can be protective factors that reduce the potential for drug abuse.

Availability of drugs

Research has clearly shown that the availability of drugs in a person's home, school, or community is one of the key risk factors for a person developing drug problems. For example, the abuse of prescription drugs, which has been on the rise for the last several years, is occurring at the same time as a sharp rise in medical prescriptions. This increased availability, combined with a lack of understanding about the dangers of misusing prescription drugs, affects the risk of addiction.

Social and other stressors

Stress, and particularly early exposure to stress, is linked to early drug use and later drug problems. For example, stressors such as physical or sexual abuse, or witnessing violence, may contribute to someone's risk for addiction. In addition, poverty is often linked to stress, and to chaotic lifestyles, which may increase the risk for drug abuse. In contrast, involvement in social networks that are supportive, and where disapproval of drug use is the norm, can protect against drug use. These groups might be sports teams, religious groups, or community groups.

Peer influence

Associating with peers who engage in risky behaviours and who use drugs is another key risk factor, especially for teens. Choosing friends who do not use drugs can protect a person from drug abuse and addiction.

School Performance

Academic failure may be a sign that a teen is currently abusing drugs and is in need of intervention, or it may be a risk factor for later drug abuse. On the other hand, teens who are successful in school, have positive self-esteem, and develop close bonds with adults outside their families (such as teachers) are less likely to abuse drugs.


Addiction, especially to substances can provide a comfort blanket or a coping mechanism to those who are lonely, are withdrawn from society or who carry emotional pain. For example, those suffering from bereavement, relationship break-up, and other traumatic experiences. Drugs are frequently used by some people to numb the feelings they believe are too painful to cope with. Also, to help them sleep, feel ’normal’, and generally cope with the stresses of everyday life.

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