We all have things that give us pleasure. For some of us, it’s playing a game on our phone or watching TV shows on Netflix. Others are foodies who enjoy gourmet meals while entrepreneurs get enjoyment from a hard day's work. Then there are those who enjoy an alcoholic beverage, a cigarette, or a pill.
No one watches an episode of The Queen’s Gambit or plays a round of Among Us and immediately becomes addicted. But with continued indulgence over a long period of time, even things that had seemed so innocuous can start to impact our lives in negative ways: The entrepreneur sacrifices sleep and time with family to spend more and more time at work. The foodie becomes overweight and develops health problems.
Similarly, it’s not uncommon for individuals who enjoy the occasional drink or pill to realize that they no longer have control over the substances they use; they’ve become addicted. But what caused it?
In other words, how do people become addicted?
How Addiction Happens
Maureen Boyle, a public health advisor and director of the science-policy branch at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, defines addiction as “a biopsychosocial disorder. It's a combination of your genetics, your neurobiology, and how that interacts with psychological and social factors.”
In general, there’s no one thing that you can point to and say “that’s what caused this person to become addicted.” To prevent addiction and to ensure that more people get access to the resources they need, we must try to better understand how people become addicted.
The Development of an Addiction
A key player in the development of an addiction is dopamine, which is what gives us the feeling of pleasure after completing a task or eating a good meal. It’s also the source of the pleasure that comes from a dose of heroin.
"The problem with drugs is that they [evoke feelings of pleasure] better than natural rewards," says Dr. Hitoshi Morikawa, an associate professor of neuroscience at the University of Texas at Austin. The more powerful and quicker the effects of the drug, the more it interferes with your normal brain processes—and the more easily it leads to addiction.
The Three Stages of Addiction
Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, was the lead researcher in a study that sought to explain how addiction develops. According to Dr. Volkow, the process through which someone becomes addicted can be broken into three phases: (1) binge and intoxication, (2) withdrawal and negative affect, and (3) preoccupation and anticipation.
Notably, each stage has a different effect on the brain, gradually causing behavioral changes that ultimately lead to addiction.
1. Binge and Intoxication
The binge and intoxication phase begins when a person first experiments with an addictive substance. The dopamine release triggered by drug use positively reinforces its continued use. Eventually, the euphoria caused by drugs or alcohol comes with the unfortunate discomfort that sets in when the substance is not in their system.
2. Withdrawal and Negative
Affect In the withdrawal and negative affect phase, there’s a strong drive to get the drug back into the individual’s system. This negative reinforcement results in further use of the drug. Meanwhile, the brain is exhibiting more significant changes as a direct result of the continued substance abuse.
During this stage we’re starting to see the vicious cycle of addiction: Taking the drug for the dopamine hit, followed by feelings of distress during the withdrawal period, which, in turn, fuels the desire to take the drug again.
3. Preoccupation and Anticipation
As a person continues to use a drug, the drug will begin to cause changes in the prefrontal cortex of the person’s brain, which is responsible for impulse control. These changes make it more difficult to resist the urge to take the drug, essentially creating a feedback loop.
Why People Become Addicted
Unfortunately, there’s no set amount of a substance that triggers addiction. Everyone is different. There are, however, several risk factors that can make a person more susceptible to addiction.
Age is a big factor in determining how susceptible a person might be to developing an addiction. "The younger someone is, the more vulnerable they are to addiction," Boyle says. This fact is most evident in a federal study that found 74 percent of people admitted to substance abuse centers had been using drugs since age 17 or younger.
Genetics also plays a role. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), “as much as half of a person's risk of becoming addicted to nicotine, alcohol, or other drugs depends on his or her genetic makeup.”
When it comes to the nature vs. nurture debate, it turns out they’re both right. Genetics is a large factor in developing an addiction, but a person’s environment also plays a significant role.
Young people who are abused or neglected by their parents become more likely to develop an addiction after turning to substance abuse as a coping mechanism. Even if they’re not abused or neglected, young people with less involved parents are more likely to experiment with drugs, which can lead to addiction.
According to the NIDA, these environmental factors can even affect people at the genetic level since “[e]nvironmental exposures or choices people make can actually ‘mark’—or remodel—the structure of DNA at the cell level or even at the level of the whole organism.”
How to Overcome Addiction
If you or someone you know wants to overcome a substance use disorder, there are Los Angeles detox programs at West Valley Detox that can help. We take a multidisciplinary approach to treatment, with our team of clinicians working with each client to develop a personalized treatment plan.
Contact us today to learn more.