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What Causes Addiction?


Any conversation surrounding what causes addiction must first address the many broadly accepted myths. First off, addiction is not caused by any drug or alcohol product. This isn’t an opinion, it’s a broadly accepted scientific fact. There is a recurring declaration of people “trying something once” and they became immediately hooked. However, there are many people who have not had that same outcome.

If addiction is caused by the use of drugs and alcohol, then why aren’t all of us who drink or smoke eventually ruining our lives? Is it because some people do something too much and then they can’t stop? They didn’t know “when to quit” but we do?

Repetition and Addiction

Research has been clear for years that addiction is not caused by someone doing something repetitively to the point of becoming hooked. For instance, gambling addiction does not happen just because someone gambled every day for years. Often, research done after the Vietnam War showed that the majority of soldiers who regularly used heroin while in Vietnam were able to completely quit when they returned home – without the need for drug treatment. While many veterans suffered for years with heroin addictions, far more never tried it again. How do we explain that if we believe repetition causes addiction?

For this reason, many of us accept the existence of an addictive personality. As well as the theory that if you have this type of personality you could become addicted to anything if given the opportunity. However, scientific research completed over decades shows that people who suffer from addiction have widely different personality types. No type is more susceptible or immune than another.

We Can’t Tell if We’re Addicted

We find that these facts are usually a complete surprise when they are explained to people. For most, this new understanding provides huge relief. The majority of people I talk to are fearful. They fear someone else might label them as addicted for engaging in what seems like reasonable and excusable behaviour. It often comes up at an event or get-together when someone discovers I work in addiction treatment. They frequently respond with a guilty look and explain that they don’t usually drink.

The fact that these intelligent people are confused about whether they might be addicted (and not know it) is fascinating. It’s clear more work is needed in broadening our understanding of one of the most serious issues society faces.

addiction treatment bc

How Can You Tell if Someone is Struggling With Addiction?

One can easily argue that the use of mood-altering substances is part of the human experience. Human beings have been producing alcohol and using various substances for as far back as we can find evidence of civilization. We see substance use problems around us but associate our drug and alcohol use with behaving in a positive, social manner. Sometimes a period of overindulgence is almost encouraged by our friends and loved ones. How many of us have “partied a lot” after we’ve had our heartbroken?

Many people will become overly dependent on a substance or behaviour, but then stop and move on. Addiction is often explained as a person’s inability to show self-control in the face of temptation, as well as an obsessive focus on a substance or a behaviour. There are a number of addiction assessments available. However, I find the simplest way is to evaluate whether you continue to engage in a behaviour, despite an ever-increasing number of negative consequences.

Being obsessed with something is not proof of addiction unless that obsession causes harm. Many of our greatest leaders and scientists are passionately obsessed and not suffering devastating consequences. However, a person who won’t stop drinking despite a DUI, getting fired for being drunk at work or being divorced by a spouse who demanded he quit shows definite signs of an alcohol use disorder.

Where Does Addiction Come From?

Science doesn’t know for sure. While research has been done for decades, we haven’t invested nearly enough in our understanding of addiction. The average person has no idea of what ultimately causes certain children to grow up and develop an addiction while others do not.

We are learning more and more about where addiction doesn’t come from. For example, scientific research agrees that the circumstance a person grows up in does not cause addiction. The risk of addiction may be higher if you are poor, a victim of abuse, uneducated or mentally ill. However, a large number of children with these realities do not go on to develop addictions.

Of course, many neglected children do develop addictions. Nonetheless, the existence of un-addicted adults who grew up in risky situations clearly indicates there is no cause and effect in the external environment of a person’s life. Even people raised by addicted parents do not necessarily develop their own addiction. Many of us know a perfectly healthy, light-drinking person with a parent who was an alcoholic.

In Summary

Recent discoveries in genetics are bringing to light certain genetic markers that are more often found in people who suffer from addiction. However, most people with those markers do not suffer from addictions either. Despite neurobiologists continually studying the brain and addiction, most admit that no pill or vaccine will ever “cure” addiction.

There is also a widespread scientific acceptance that at no time will we be able to definitively predict who will develop an addiction based on something we see in the physical structure of their brain. They know that addiction isn’t in our brain, it’s in our mind; the mind is a very complex and individualized thing. It resists one size fits all answers.

At Sunshine Coast Health Centre and Georgia Strait Women’s Clinic, we support individuals through a holistic approach that recognizes social wellbeing as a key part of growth and healing. If you or a loved one are struggling with addiction or mental health, give us a call today.

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