Why do addicts use drugs?

Addiction is often related to particular risk factors including environmental and genetic background. More on why addiction is unique to certain individuals here.

minute read

Different Drugs, Different People, Different Reactions

Becoming addicted to drugs is complex. No one reason and no single factor explain why one person travels down the path of drug abuse while someone else doesn’t. Understanding the overall risk factors of drug addiction, and the types of drugs involved provide some understanding of why addiction is so unique from person to person.

Here, we hope to explore the issue simply. We review risk factors for drug abuse and addiction.  Then, we invite your questions about drugs or addiction at the end.

The addicted brain

Drugs of addiction work on the pleasure/reward portions of the brain. Depending on the drug, a person feels high, relaxed, energized, hallucinates, or other sensations. Some drugs of addiction just fool the brain into telling the body it feels a particular way. Other drugs overstimulate the reward system.

Simply put, the brain becomes used to having these surges of reward transmitters, and begin to demand more and more. The normal structure and function of certain parts of the brain actually change, leading to dependence and addiction. Dependence = your body has adapted to the drug and needs it to function normally.  People who are drug dependent need to go through detox with understanding before addressing psychological dependence. Like everything in addiction, each person is on their personal highway, traveling at their own unique speed.

Why addiction is unique to each individual: Risk factors

Addiction is often related to particular risk factors. Risk factors can be something a person can change, and something that they can’t. Researchers are continually looking at all of these risk factors, in order to find better ways to prevent and treat drug addictions. Prevention means recognizing more clearly the risk factors present for each individual, and providing individualized guidance to manage risks, before drug use begins. According to the National Institute on Drug Addiction, risk factors come in three basic categories:

  1. Biological
  2. Environmental
  3. Developmental

No one is predestined to become an addict or an alcoholic. But if all risk factors are strongly present at any given time, the percentages for addiction go way up.

Biological risk factors

Biological risk factors include genetic predispositions. Research has shown that combining environmental risk factors with genetic ones makes a person 25% more vulnerable to addiction. Other biological influences include some mental health issues and gender. Further, scientists estimate that genetic factors account for between 40-60% of a person’s vulnerability to addiction; this includes the effects of environmental factors on the function and expression of a person’s genes.

Environmental risk factors

Environmental issues and influences are numerous. Peer pressure, poverty, abuse and stress are a few of the environmental risk factors that can lead to addiction.

Developmental risk factors

A person’s stage of development is also a risk factor which contributes to addiction. Adolescents and people with mental disorders are at greater risk of drug abuse and addiction than the general population. This is why developmental risk factors are primarily related to drug use and the developing teen and adolescent brain.

Other risk factors

Type of drug used and duration of use

The kind of drug (or drugs) a person is dependent on or addicted to, and the length of the addiction, add to the complexities of individual responses to addiction and recovery. For example, prescription opioids are extremely addictive and prescription opioid overdose is a major problem. All drugs, not just drugs of addiction, work on the brain’s natural ability to send and receive signals. This communication process is all done through brain chemicals called neurotransmitters.

Mode of administration

Smoking or injecting drugs increase addictive potential. This is because these modes of administration allow drugs to cross the blood-brain within seconds, producing a powerful rush of pleasure. While an intense “high” can fade within a few minutes, cravings persist and compulsion to use can increase over time. However, increased tolerance to drug effects can make the initial high impossible to repeat. Scientists believe this starkly felt contrast drives some people to repeated drug taking in an attempt to recapture the fleeting pleasurable state.

Addiction Proof?

While risk factors are more significant in some people, the only real addiction-proof solution is never to start using. Everyone is at risk for dependence and addiction when using prescription painkillers, heroin, cocaine and other drugs of abuse. While prevention is the best battle plan, many people are already waging a painful war with an addiction.

Asking for help is the first step to getting clean. If you have any questions or comments about addiction, please ask us below. We’ll do our best to respond to you personally and promptly.


Reference Sources: NIDA; Drugs, Brains, and Behavior: The Science of Addiction
About the author
Tracy Smith covers topics within the drug addiction niche being a recovering addict herself. She is thankful to have found treatment for her substance abuse that helped her become sober.
I am ready to call
i Who Answers?