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The Surprising Underlying Causes of Addiction

Black and white image of man covering face with both hands

Black and white image of man covering face with both hands

The underlying cause of an addiction is often very difficult to pin down. People suffering from addictions don’t fully understand the addiction themselves, and a lot of work needs to be done to address both the addiction and the root cause of the addiction. At Alpine Recovery Lodge, we are well acquainted with this type of work, and we understand how painful and complicated it can be to go through this discovery process.

In some instances, an addict’s family history plays an intimate role in their addiction. For example, addiction and mental illness are known to be found in family units, and if a mother or father, siblings or even extended family members have battled addiction in the past, others are more likely to become addicts in the future.

What can make identifying the root cause of addiction difficult is that some individuals with addiction problems have no such family or personal health history. In fact, the true underlying causes of addictions may even surprise the person who is struggling with the addiction in the first place.

To illustrate the challenge of finding the root cause of addiction, we’ve outlined three unexpected causes of addictions, as we’ve come to see and understand them throughout our practice.

Addiction is an Adaptive Response

Under normal circumstances, humans are very good at adapting to new surroundings. We often feel overwhelmed at first, but then quickly settle into our new situation. If we are struggling with difficult things at work or at home, we find ways to cope with those feelings and issues.

For some people, however, adaptation is not so easily achieved,and people look outside themselves for ways to cope with their work or home life. Addicts, according to some experts, report that there is a deficient brain-reward system that occurs, which can feed into the adaptive response that we normally experience and turn it into a vicious cycle.

Even without suffering from an addiction, it’s easy to see how a deficient brain-reward system can cause someone to become addicted to drugs, alcohol, sex, shoplifting, or a whole host of problems that may occur: it gives them “the high” they are chasing. When something feels good, even for a few minutes, we want more of it. In the brain of someone who is not an addict, they feel the “reward” of opiate-like neurotransmitters when receiving affection from a loved one. They get “the high” from things that happen in everyday life.

In the addict brain, however, some people have less of these neurotransmitters or experience a faulty system of releasing these chemical resources. To adjust to this internal deficiency, the addict may use a substance such as heroin to regulate their emotions in an attempt to find inner balance.

Of course, addicts don’t realize this is what is taking place neurologically; most people don’t give it any thought, actually. It becomes an automatic response: they feel negative emotions or have negative thoughts, and they reach for the drugs or alcohol to rid themselves of that feeling.

In other instances, people who have been diagnosed with conditions and been given medication to treat it, such as Attention Deficit Disorder, may decide to self-adjust their medication to have more focus or feel better. Over time, the effect of the medication becomes weakened and people turn to other illicit drugs to help them stabilize their focus.  Cocaine, for example, is known to provide an acute focus for short periods of time, but because someone with Attention Deficit Disorder is always lacking focus, they continue to turn to the drugs to help them maintain that feeling of being in control.

Negative Reinforcement Can Cause Addiction in People

The positive “reward” system that drug or alcohol use provides people is often thought to be the main reason people use them to the point of becoming addicted. There are several theories, however, that show the opposite is also true: people turn to drugs or alcohol more and more often to rid themselves of the negative side effects of drug use.

When you take a hit and feel that euphoric feeling, it lasts for a little while. The withdrawal or “come down” experience, however, is much longer and often more painful for people who use illicit drugs. In order to cope with that withdrawal sensation and feel better faster, people use drugs again and the cycle continues. So it’s not that they are chasing the “high”, but they are avoiding the “low”.

Without realizing it, addicts can find themselves constantly just trying to feel normal again. A lot of people say they drink alcohol or take drugs first thing in the morning because it gets them to “normal”. That might be the reason in the beginning, but over time the reason can switch to avoiding pain and discomfort.

According to Dr. George Koob of the Scripps Research Institute, interviewed in this NBC News article, recent research has shown that while cocaine causes euphoria, the drug also releases brain chemicals related to stress and fear. These negative feelings linger long after the euphoria fades, and the only way to treat them is to use cocaine again, resulting in a vicious cycle. We all know how stress and fear can disrupt our lives and we often can feel like we’d do anything for relief. For addicts, that relief is just one more hit away…and then another…and then another.

Personality Disorders Can Lead to Addictions

Addiction is rarely a single problem. While the underlying causes might not be apparent right away, it is not uncommon for professionals working with addicts to discover and diagnose underlying problems, such as depression, anxiety, or even bipolar disorder. While these associations are valid, addiction experts say that conversations about what causes addictive behavior should also include personality disorders, such as narcissistic personality disorder.

It’s important to point out as well that the presence of these disorders does not automatically mean a person will become an addict, but the correlation between the two does exist.

According to addiction expert Robert B. Millman of New York Hospital-Cornell Medical School, narcissists are well-represented in drug-addiction population; these individuals do not fundamentally realize that any world that exists outside of their mind is real. Without recognizing the validity of the “real world” – which includes the negative consequences of drugs – someone with a narcissistic personality disorder doesn’t have sufficient incentive not to use. In other words, to someone suffering from a narcissistic personality disorder, drug or alcohol use seems perfectly normal.

Individuals with personalities that are prone to risk-taking are also prone to addiction problems, says Millman. As risks start to provide less and less of a “high”, some people will turn to drugs or alcohol to “take it up a notch.”

According to Richard Taite, author and treatment specialist, pharmaceutical solutions for addiction do exist, but addicts must receive also receive psychological treatment to understand the root causes of why they use in order to change their lives. Without understanding the root cause, treatment cannot be as effective or long-lasting.

Identifying and Addressing the Causes of Addiction is Necessary for Recovery

Understanding where addiction comes from can be very complicated.  Several factors, including your family history, responses to stress, current living situation, and potential personality disorders, can all play a role.  Tackling these issues requires patient and compassionate guidance.  At Alpine Recovery Lodge, we are here to help with this challenging work.  To learn more about our treatment therapies for addiction’s underlying causes, contact us today.