Causes Of Substance Abuse
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Causes Of Substance Abuse

John Schaffer, LPCC

Medically reviewed by

John Schaffer, LPCC

February 25, 2019

Substance abuse can arise from a number of circumstances and depend upon the individual. While there is no specific recipe that leads to substance abuse, these are common causes that can lead to addiction.

Substance abuse threatens the lives of millions of Americans. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports that “in 2013, an estimated 24.6 million Americans aged 12 or older—9.4 percent of the population—had used an illicit drug in the past month. This number is up from 8.3 percent in 2002.”

Each individual’s situation is unique; substance abuse results from a culmination of experiences, responses, and desires within a person’s life. NIDA states that “no single factor determines whether a person will become addicted to drugs.” Despite this, it is important to recognize that there are a wide variety of factors that contribute to why a person may fall prey to the dangers of substance abuse. Here we discuss some of the most common factors and situations that can precipitate this risk.

Behavioral And Social Pressures

To Experience Feelings Of Pleasure: The majority of drugs induce a feeling of pleasure or euphoria followed by other effects that vary depending on the drug. A person may use a drug to mask emotions such as unhappiness or loneliness. As they continue to avoid the root of these feelings and use, the drug replaces them with a false sense of well-being that increases their risk of developing a substance abuse problem.

The Cycle Of Triggers And Cravings: As a person delves deeper into drug use, they will—even unknowingly, begin to develop a set of cues that trigger an intense and sudden desire (a craving) to use a particular substance. These triggers revolve around the people, places, and behaviors that center on the drug use itself. As a person continues to indulge these cues, they may begin to develop substance abuse.

At certain times, these triggers may thwart you even when you least expect it—perhaps you always listened to a certain song while using a drug; you could be shopping and that song could play on the radio and all of a sudden you experience an acute need to use the drug. Drug use begins to infiltrate even the most basic, and once wholesome aspects of your life.

For Performance: Certain drugs may support, enhance, or alter cognitive or physical performance. For this reason, some people may consume them to aid in these processes. As their life exerts pressure on them to perform, focus, stay awake, or maintain a cheerful disposition, a person may begin to rely on the drug to counter these demands.

This use may begin legally—some drugs such as those for ADD are medically prescribed; however, as a person begins to derive their worth from the drug’s effects, they may begin to take it beyond the capacity in which it is prescribed. Illicit drugs are also misused and abused in these same manners.

Self-Medication: Various life concerns may exert pressure or stress on a person. These circumstances may cause mental or emotional duress. As a person becomes overwhelmed with these emotions and situations they may begin to take a substance to moderate the symptoms.

A person learns from their direct experience with a substance. If a person begins to continuously associate the cessation of something unpleasant with drug use, they will begin to take the drug to maintain the alleviation of that symptom. This maintenance dose is often what makes casual use transgress to substance abuse. As they continue to take the drug, they become increasingly unable to cope with the situations on their own; this increased use often leads to tolerance and dependence.

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Environmental Concerns

Family Circumstances: A person’s support system or lack thereof can be a component in a person’s risk factor for developing substance abuse. Those contending with a difficult family situation, such as abuse or neglect, may be more apt to use drugs, either within the time frame these behaviors are occurring, or after, as a means to counter the negative emotions that linger. They may also use drugs as a means to seek attention that they are not otherwise receiving, or as way to cry for help.

Inversely, those that have more involvement, supervision, or accountability may have a statistically lesser chance of engaging in these behaviors, as they have other outlets within their family to derive support and balance from.

The Way We Learn: In addition to our direct experience with a drug, i.e. the cause and effect of our own use, we learn by observing those around us. For anyone, especially children, witnessing people we are close to using drugs on a regular basis can lead to dangerous misperceptions about drug use.

For instance, if you see family members utilizing alcohol to either engage in happy or sad situations on a regular basis, you might begin to equate those events with a perpetual or positive use of alcohol. Examples include if you witness your parents consistently consuming alcohol during social engagements, or if someone always has a drink to contend with a bad day or overwhelming situation. These preconceived notions may, in the future, help you to justify or overlook the risk of your own behaviors.

Peer Pressure: A person might experiment with drugs to bolster their social standing or to satisfy their curiosity after having witnessed their friends partaking.

This holds particular concern to the adolescent and teenage populations. It is most worrisome for this age group because they are statistically proven to more frequently take part in at-risk behaviors. They may do this in order to appease their peers and set themselves apart by this perceived act of self-reliance; it may also be a venue by which they try to defy authoritative figures such as their parents.

For anyone, this pressure rises when their social sphere is centered around drug or alcohol use. Even if their peers are not actively exerting pressure on them to consume the substance, the person may begin to feel that they should be doing it in order to fit in, or enjoy their peer’s company more.

This becomes dangerous as a person’s substance use progresses. Oftentimes they begin to lose relationships with people that don’t approve or don’t use themselves; instead, the people they are around are acceptable of this behavior—they may even be struggling with their own substance abuse concerns. Due to this, a person can begin to lose perspective on how these behaviors are in fact very risky.

Biological and Psychological Contributors

The Characteristics Of The Drug Itself: Certain drugs such as cocaine, heroin, and painkillers have the capacity to form addictions quicker. This is not to say that those that don’t cannot become abused or addictive; quite the contrary—often times because a person does not feel the effects as quickly or intensely they will use the drug more often, or in larger amounts, thus increasing their risk for substance abuse.

A person’s body and mind can begin to build a tolerance against a drug. When this happens, a person will find that they are not experiencing the feeling that they desire; thus they often times increase the amount of drug they are using to achieve this feeling, in turn increasing their risk for dependence.

Substance abuse has intense physical and physiological implications—prolonged substance abuse can deplete the body of essential vitamins, nutrients and chemicals that are necessary for the body to maintain its natural balance and production of the “feel good” chemicals that are responsible for aiding in a person’s sense of well-being. As a person begins to feel worse, or more tired, they may use the drug more to try to improve their physical or mental condition.

A drug can actually modify the chemistry of your brain; it can make your brain produce either too many or not enough neurotransmitters, chemicals that are responsible for sending messages across the brain. As this happens, and as a person’s brain begins to fail to produce enough of the neurotransmitters that are crucial for balance and wellness, they find that they need to take the drug just to feel “normal.”

Developmental Stage: A person’s age, or rather the point at which drug use starts within their developmental process may also influence a drug’s potential for risk and dependence. NIDA says that “the earlier that drug use begins, the more likely it will progress to more serious abuse.” This is because at a certain age, young people are more apt to engage in risky behaviors because their brains have not yet fully developed the areas responsible for self-control, impulsivity, decision-making, and judgment; paired with hormonal imbalances and often times a quaky sense of self-confidence, this can put a young person in a dangerous position.

Genes: NIDA describes this component, offering that “scientists estimate that genetic factors account for between 40 and 60 percent of a person’s vulnerability to addiction; this includes the effects of environmental factors on the function and expression of a person’s genes.” A person’s genetic makeup may either slow down or increase the extent to which they are vulnerable to developing dependence for a certain substance; also genetics may make a person more susceptible to one substance over another.

Though the exact extent by which a person’s genetic makeup may influence substance abuse is not wholly known, it is known that some people may have a genetic predisposition to substance abuse. Mayo Clinic states that “If you have a blood relative, such as a parent or sibling, with alcohol or drug problems, you’re at greater risk of developing a drug addiction.” However, despite this, it is entirely possible that a person with this family history will not develop a substance abuse problem, whereas someone that does not have a genetic predisposition, will.

Gender: A fair amount of research suggests that gender can play a role in the risk for developing substance abuse. An article in Psychiatric Times cites that “there is now recognition that biologic and psychosocial differences between men and women influence the prevalence, presentation, co-morbidity, and treatment of substance use disorders.” Essentially, the means that a person’s gender may affect how a drug affects them (such as tolerance), while also playing a role in other factors that may influence the risk and prevalence of substance abuse.

Jill Becker, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Michigan spoke of this “Women begin using drugs at lower doses than men, their drug use escalates more rapidly into addiction, and they face a greater risk of relapse after abstinence…women tend to enter treatment sooner after becoming dependent on substances than men, but they usually have more psychological distress, particularly with mood and anxiety disorders.”

Stress: Studies show that stress alone is one of the largest reason’s why a person develops a substance abuse problem. Stress may come in many forms—it could include a sudden life change such as an illness, death, or loss of a job, it could be rooted in vocational or academic reasons as a person struggles to contend with the demands of either, it could even be stress on a person’s body. Stress is a precursor to other things, such as mental health concerns that may also increase your risk of substance abuse.

Mental Health: A person’s mental and emotional standing can put them at greater risk for substance abuse. Depression, anxiety, PTSD, and a wide variety of others may stress a person to the point that they begin to self-medicate as they strive to manage the symptoms of these illnesses. For instance, for someone that contends with a social anxiety disorder they may engage in drug use to make them more relaxed or sociable within social circumstances.

Additionally, the substance use itself may exacerbate these concerns; this is a two-fold concern. First, as a person falls deeper into the substance abuse they begin to ignore other important areas of their life; as these things—a relationship, job, or educational pursuits begin to crack under the stress and negligence caused by the drug use, the person become even more overwhelmed and suppressed mentally and emotionally, which in turn drives them to use more.

Secondly, as mentioned above, drug use can alter important chemical productions within the brain that are necessary for emotional and mental health.

Consider The Risks And Get Help Today

As you can see, there are various risk factors and circumstances that may increase a person’s chance of developing a substance abuse problem. The one thing that is certain though is this—even though people may start out their substance abuse for different reasons, risks and dangers are present for all people. For this reason, it is important that you seek help.

If you’re concerned that your substance use is becoming habitual, or that your substance abuse is forming an addiction, please contact us today at so we can help you get the care you need to stop things before they get any more serious.

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