Why Some Become Addicted and Others Don’t

Written by Chloe Nicosia

Addiction is a disease of the brain characterized by compulsive drug or alcohol use despite negative consequences. Read on to learn why some become addicted and others don’t.

Most people who use drugs or alcohol don’t become addicted, but some people do. Why some become addicted involves a combination of genetics, environment, biology, and personality.

Types of Addiction

There are two main types of addiction: substance addiction and behavioral addiction. A substance addiction is an addiction to a substance like drugs or alcohol. A behavioral addiction is an addiction to a behavior, such as gambling or shopping.

Substance addictions most commonly involve alcohol, prescription drugs, and illegal drugs. Nearly one in ten Americans has an addiction to drugs or alcohol, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Why Some Become Addicted and Others Don’t

Genetics accounts for about half of your risk of developing an addiction. The other half is attributed to a combination of environment, biology, culture, and personality.

To explain why some become addicted, you have to look at each individual case. In some cases, a family history of addiction combined with heavy substance abuse will lead to an addiction, while in other cases it won’t. That’s because every individual is different, and the circumstances behind developing an addiction vary widely. There are endless factors and combinations of factors that can lead to heavy substance abuse and addiction. Just a handful of these factors include:

  • Having a risk-taking personality.
  • Experimenting with drugs or alcohol at a young age.
  • The way your body metabolizes alcohol.
  • Growing up in a home culture that modeled drug or alcohol abuse.
  • Having a social life built largely on drinking or using drugs.

Underlying Causes of Addiction

Addiction almost always has one or more underlying causes. The most common underlying causes of addiction include:

Chronic stress. Many people use drugs or alcohol to reduce stress. People who suffer from chronic stress related to family dysfunction, financial problems, a demanding job, a medical illness, or another source may engage in heavy substance abuse, which can lead to addiction.

A history of trauma. Survivors of trauma, including physical and sexual abuse, are likely to use drugs or alcohol in an attempt to reduce fear and anxiety, suppress difficult memories, and cope with insomnia and nightmares that may follow a traumatic event. Post-traumatic stress disorder, which often occurs following a trauma, is a common risk factor for substance abuse and addiction.

Family dysfunction. Unhealthy relationships and a dysfunction household can lead to substance abuse and addiction, especially in cases of abusive relationships. Family dysfunction and the chronic stress that comes with it are another important risk factor for substance abuse.

Mental illness. Mental illness and addiction commonly co-occur. Sometimes, the mental illness comes first. People often self-medicate feelings of worthlessness, anxiety, or depression with drugs or alcohol, sometimes leading to addiction. Conversely, substance abuse can cause the onset of a mental illness due to changes in brain function caused by heavy drug and alcohol use. When treating these co-occurring disorders, both the addiction and the mental illness need to be treated at the same time, each in the context of the other.

Individualized Treatment is Essential

The question of why some become addicted and others don’t isn’t easy to answer, because everyone develops an addiction differently. The most important thing to note is that professional help is essential for long-term recovery, and since no two individuals’ addictions are alike, no two individuals’ treatment plans should be the same.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration stresses that just as there is no single pathway to addiction, there is no single pathway to recovery. Regardless of why someone becomes addicted, an individualized treatment plan is essential for the best possible outcome of treatment.