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The causes of drug addiction

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Drug addiction, or substance use disorder, is a chronic disease that impacts and alters the reward system of the brain. An addiction to drugs has the power to affect people of any age, at any time and is a very complex illness. It can activate uncontrollable behaviours and once the person is addicted they will place taking drugs above all other obligations in their lives, no matter the consequences.

People usually start using drugs to escape pain – whether that’s physical or psychological. Often, though, drug use can start small, what was first considered a ‘one-off’ or even prescription of painkillers to aid recovery from another issue, can soon turn into dependency. 

causes of drug addiction

What are the causes of drug addiction?

As with most physical or mental health conditions, there are a multitude of factors that can be considered causes of drug addiction. Similar to other addictions, these contributing elements come from biological, psychological, environmental and social factors.

Let’s take a look at some of the more common causes and risks associated with drug addiction.

  1. The brain and how it functions 
  2. Using highly addictive substances 
  3. Use of drugs for an injury 
  4. Family history of drug use 
  5. Introduction to drugs from a young age 
  6. Traumatic life events 
  7. Stressful situations 
  8. Mental health 
  9. Pressure from peers 



Many people who are addicted to drugs have been found to have a genetic predisposition to display reward-seeking behaviours and be impulsive. This is due to two main reasons: an underactive prefrontal cortex and an underactive brain reward system.

People with an underactive brain reward system don’t experience as much pleasure from natural highs and therefore seek activities which will create higher levels of reward. Once they have discovered what creates this feeling, they will keep searching for that high. Those with an underactive prefrontal cortex will have increased difficulty controlling their impulses. Along with this, they will struggle to think about the long-term repercussions of their actions.


The main neurotransmitter in the reward system of the brain is dopamine. When an increased level of dopamine is released in an individual, they will experience a feeling of euphoria – this is what drug abuse achieves. However, after a period of taking drugs, the brain creates a tolerance to the stimulation making the reward system less efficient. As a result of this, the long-term performance of the brain will be altered and the individual now won’t be able to recreate the dopamine high they initially experienced from taking drugs.


Serotonin is another neurotransmitter which can play a big part in drug addiction. Serotonin is linked to wellbeing, the ability to sleep and senses – lower levels of it can be associated with anxiety, depression, aggression, lower levels of impulse control and suicidal tendencies.

The use of highly addictive substances

Substances such as stimulants, cocaine, or opioids, can create addiction with more ease than other substances. The acts of injecting and smoking substances can also heighten the risk of addiction. 


Injury or illness also create risk when it comes to drug addiction. The more long-term the ailment, the higher the risk – especially if painkillers don’t do an effective job for the complaint. The more drugs are taken to alleviate pain, the higher the chance there is of developing a dependency. 

Prescription drug addiction: Getting Help

Family history

Not only is a predisposition thanks to genetics a big factor, but having a relative who is addicted to drugs or has been in the past can have a strong bearing on behaviour if that person has been a part of the environment.

Along with this, a lack of positive support or guidance from parents or guardians can create drug abuse issues. Exposure to an environment involving drugs and coupling that with a lack of parental supervision could be extremely dangerous.

Being introduced to drugs from an early age

The earlier in life someone tries drugs, the higher the risk for addiction. If taking drugs has been a normal experience for that person over a prolonged period of time, it’s likely to become a habit that could manifest itself into addiction.

Traumatic experiences

This includes adverse childhood experiences such as sexual, emotional or physical abuse. Anyone who has experienced trauma or abuse in their lifetime has a heightened risk of drug addiction. People who witness traumatic events as part of their profession (emergency responders or members of the armed forces, for example) are also more likely to go on to take drugs. 


People in stressful situations or environments have a high likelihood of turning to drugs. For instance, an individual experiencing upsetting personal circumstances could be more likely to take drugs by way of escapism.

Mental health problems

The link between substance abuse and depression (and other mental health problems) has long been considered a problem. Just like people turning to drugs in an attempt to alleviate stress, people who suffer from mental health issues also turn to drugs to self-medicate. This creates a dangerous cycle because the use of drugs and alcohol can heighten depression.

Peer pressure

Being in the company of loved ones who participate in substance abuse can mount pressure to join in. This kind of environment can create a slippery slope into an addiction to drugs.

The effects of drug addiction 

There are many causes of drug addiction and there are also many health problems caused by drugs. Not only can drugs create severe health complications, but emotional and social wellbeing can be heavily affected. So what can drugs cause? 

Health implications:

  • Damage to the immune system
  • Liver damage or failure
  • Cardiovascular conditions
  • Strokes and seizures
  • Brain damage (can be permanent) capable of interfering with decision-making, memory and attention
  • Severe mental health problems

Social and emotional implications:

  • Unemployment
  • Damage to and loss of relationships
  • Imprisonment
  • Financial difficulties
  • Homelessness

There are a number of factors that can contribute towards the risk of a person developing drug addiction and a number of health and social implications as a result. Understanding the risk factors means you can ensure you lower your chances of developing a problem as much as possible. 

It is difficult for the sufferer to identify that they have a problem with drugs due to denial. If you read our signs and symptoms and feel you or someone you know may have a drug problem then we can offer help. Please call our free phone line on 08000029010.

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