What Are the Most Common Underlying Causes of Addiction?

What are the Most Common Underlying Causes of Addiction?
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Addiction is a complex and multifaceted disorder, with no single cause. Instead, multiple pathways to addiction exist and can combine and intertwine with each other in innumerable ways. But what are the leading causes of addiction, and how can you minimize your risk of developing an addiction?

The Key Causes of Addiction

Before digging into the unique pathways to addiction, it is beneficial to understand the root cause of addiction in general. Most people have different specific reasons for using addictive drugs, but everything really boils down to a few general reasons.

People use drugs and alcohol:

  • To feel good
  • To feel better
  • To do better
  • Because other people are doing them

Yet many people find that shortly after they begin using drugs or alcohol for these reasons, the positive effects diminish and are replaced with harmful consequences. The more people use addictive substances, the more dependent upon them they become.

Researchers from the National Institute on Drug Abuse have done extensive studies examining the brains of people living with substance use disorders. They have found that drug or alcohol addiction makes several lasting changes in the brain’s neural connections.1 Specifically, the brain’s reward center gets rewired, making it exceptionally difficult for people to stop on their own.

When people develop a substance use disorder, they have several common symptoms, such as:

  • They lose interest in hobbies or activities outside of substance use
  • They feel intense and unwanted drug and alcohol cravings
  • They experience debilitating physical withdrawal symptoms if they suddenly stop

These factors make it incredibly difficult for people to stop using independently. Addiction is not a choice, but targeted addiction treatment can help people to break free.

Risk Factors for Addiction

By understanding what causes addiction in general, we can more closely examine how specific situations can be considered causes of addiction or increase the likelihood that someone goes on to develop an addiction.


Genetics are perhaps the most obvious risk factor for addiction. Hundreds of academic papers have been published showing that people with a family history of addiction are more likely to develop a substance use disorder. This happens even among adopted children who don’t grow up with their parents with substance use disorders.

Additionally, different types of substance use disorders have different rates of heritability. According to one study, heritability for hallucinogen use disorder is among the lowest at 40%, while cocaine addiction has a 70% heritability.2

Of course, whether your parents have a history of substance misuse doesn’t guarantee you will either. It only increases the likelihood that you develop an addiction — and steps can be taken to prevent this.

The easiest step would be to avoid substance use if you have a family history of addiction. You simply can’t develop a substance use disorder if you never take a drink or use a recreational drug.

Co-Occurring Mental Illness

Mental health issues are another leading cause of addiction. One of the key causes of addiction is people using drugs or alcohol to feel better — and many people who live with a mental health disorder, such as depression or anxiety, may not be feeling their best.

This hypothesis for a causal connection between mental health and addiction is known as the “Self-Medication Hypothesis.” It outlines the following path to addiction:

  1. People experience a negative mental health symptom, such as stress, anxiety, or depression
  2. They use drugs or alcohol, and notice that their mental health symptoms temporarily improve
  3. After the substance’s effects wear off, their mental health symptoms return, and possibly worsen
  4. They use drugs or alcohol again to improve their symptoms, often in greater doses than before
  5. Steps 3 and 4 repeat until they can quit substance use

Many people can fall into this destructive downward spiral, even if they are unaware that they have a mental health condition in the first place.

But another pathway exists along the same trajectory. Often, one of the side effects of drug or alcohol use is the development of a mental health disorder. This is known as a “substance-induced” mental illness, such as a person developing depression as a result of their alcohol misuse.

Even if they hadn’t met the criteria for addiction before, if they start self-medicating their mental health symptoms with drugs or alcohol, they may quickly develop a substance use disorder.

Environmental Factors

Research has shown for years that certain environmental factors increase the likelihood of addiction. A variety of factors play a role, including:

  • Living in poverty
  • Growing up in an abusive household
  • Authoritative parenting styles
  • Having a peer group that engages in substance abuse
  • Being a child of divorced parents

The stress and strain these factors can put on a person increase the likelihood of developing substance use problems. They can also contribute to the development of mental illness, which directly ties into the self-medication pathway.


Trauma has a profound effect on addiction, and in several different ways. Early childhood trauma — often referred to by researchers as adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) — strongly predicts future addictive behaviors.

Researchers believe that facing significant trauma early in life can change how your brain develops, making it more likely that you will develop an addiction if you start misusing addictive drugs.

Trauma experienced as an adult can also lead to addiction. People with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are much more likely to develop an alcohol or drug problem, usually in an attempt to escape from invasive thoughts or negative feelings from their PTSD.

How Wolf Creek Recovery’s Addiction Rehab Centers in AZ Can Help

Ultimately, everyone has a different root cause of addiction. It’s typically a combination of several factors, and drug and alcohol treatment needs to address and appreciate the complex pathways addiction can take. At Wolf Creek Recovery, we have several different treatment options to cover the full spectrum of addiction recovery, including:

Medical Detox

Medical detox helps people overcome the difficult first stage of sobriety. People living with a substance use disorder can suffer debilitating withdrawal symptoms if they suddenly stop and can experience several negative mental health effects as well.

With targeted medical intervention, many of these symptoms can be alleviated. Detox helps people to stabilize after living for months or years with addiction and prepares our clients for the next steps in treatment.

Dual-Diagnosis Treatment

For people living with co-occurring disorders, such as depression, anxiety, or PTSD, dual-diagnosis treatment can provide evidence-based treatment methods to treat both addiction and mental health simultaneously.

The compassionate team at our dual-diagnosis treatment facility has diverse experiences and specialties to help people achieve holistic recovery. Our clients can learn healthy coping mechanisms, get specific medications for their mental health disorders, and build a life worth living in recovery.

Start Treatment at Wolf Creek Recovery

If you’re struggling with your substance use, Wolf Creek Recovery’s rehab centers in AZ can help. Call our dedicated team at (833) 732-8202 or reach out online to get started on the path to recovery today.



[1] https://www.nature.com/articles/npp2009110

[2] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3506170/