If you suffer from addiction or know someone who does, chances are you’ve wondered what exactly led up to it. What exactly was the root cause?

Unfortunately, there is no simple answer.

The truth is, there’s a multitude of reasons why people could suffer from substance abuse disorder.

In this article, we’re going to go over three of the leading causes that have been identified by scientists as strong contributing factors that put people at risk for developing an addiction.

1.   Surrounding Environments

The environments that someone previously or presently is exposed to can be one of the determining factors in their risk for developing a substance use disorder.

Through our experiences, we’ve developed coping mechanisms and social conditioning — both of which have the potential to be detrimental or helpful to our wellbeing, depending on the pattern of behavior you begin to exhibit.

Early Life Experiences

The experiences you’ve had from a young age have been shown to have a correlation with possible addiction later on in life.

These experiences could be:

  • Parenting style
  • Level of supervision
  • Appropriate or inappropriate interactions

Since our early years, we have been programmed to develop ways to deal with stress. And, when those coping methods are maladaptive — that is, responses that are not in your best interest — they can lead to harmful or self-destructive behaviors down the road.

Divorce, abuse, and neglect have all been associated with an increase in one’s risk factor for addiction later in life.1

Peer Pressure

Whether it be drug and alcohol use or diet and exercise, peer pressure can sway you to participate in activities that are not a typical part of your lifestyle.

Social Learning Theory is one of the ways scientists are learning to gauge how we learn and are influenced by one another.

This theory includes:

  • Social reinforcement — feeling obligated to do something you normally would not do
    • Example: Experimenting with drugs because your friends will make fun of you if you don’t try it.
  • Modeling behavior — mimicking behavior by watching others
    • Example: Grabbing a drink at a party because everyone else has one and you feel left out.
  • Cognitive processes — telling yourself why something is positive or negative
    • Example: Convincing yourself that you’re more enjoyable to be around when you are under the influence.

Studies strongly suggest that peer pressure is most prevalent within a close circle of friends than it is with strangers or acquaintances.2

Environmental Preference

Experiencing behavioral, addictive triggers can correspond with a pattern of environments you are conditioned to be in.

For example, if you are in a habit of going home and drinking a bottle of wine on your couch after work, that environment may begin to trigger a craving for the same behavior to be repeated day after day.

This pattern of behavior can be attributed to something called Conditioned Place Preference, or CPP.

CPP is a learned behavior that has previously been associated with rewards or incentives. Studies on Conditional Place Preference have shown that it takes only three to four exposures with positive stimuli in a particular setting for CPP to potentially take effect.3

2. Mental Health

Did you know that one in four adults living with severe mental health problems also suffer from addiction?

These two issues may occur together because:

  • Drugs themselves may cause mental health symptoms on their own
  • Those with mental health issues may self-medicate with substances
  • Both mental health and addiction can be linked back to genetics and previous experiences4


The data that researchers have collected suggest that those with panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have the highest rate of substance abuse of those diagnosed with a mental health disorder.

Those who suffer from depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and borderline personality disorder also have a higher rate of addiction than the general population.5


According to a Loneliness Index by Cigna, most Americans feel alone in their life.

Loneliness can have a harmful effect on someone’s overall mental health. It can cause feelings of being rejected, unloved, and confusion to the surface. This, in turn, may lead to depression, anxiety, and feelings of stress.

For someone already experiencing addiction, feelings of loneliness may increase as family, friends, and co-workers begin to pull away and separate themselves from that atmosphere. And, without a support system in place, addiction could begin to spiral out of control.6

Social & Generalized Media

For anyone, social media can trigger a variety of emotions.

However, for someone who is already struggling, seeing people portray their lives as being happy-go-lucky and full of joy and adventure can be incredibly demoralizing and may exacerbate mental health symptoms for those who are susceptible to them.

Moreover, video games, TV shows, movies, and even the local news can all bring unrealistic expectations. Substance abuse is oftentimes glorified in media outlets and they tend to show us a fantasy where drugs and alcohol are glamourized in the storylines.1

2.   Genetics

What makes one person prone to addiction and then leaves another person seemingly unphased?

One possible answer to this question is our genetic makeup.

Our human genome — which is the complete set of human DNA — suggests that any two people in the world are approximately 99.9% similar. However, that 0.1% of leftover DNA accounts for over three million differences that may or may not be visible to the eye.

A few of these differences include:

  • Height
  • Hair, eye, and skin color
  • Risk or protection for certain health issues such as strokes, cancers, and mental health diagnoses — including addiction

In some instances, diseases are derived from a change — also referred to as a mutation — in one individual gene. A very well-known example of this is the BRCA mutations, which are tied to a woman’s risk of breast and ovarian cancers.

However, medical researchers are now discovering that addiction may be brought on by complex mutations or variations in more than one gene found in our DNA strands.7

Our genes also play a role in how many D2 dopamine receptors — a protein found in our central nervous system — each individual person has. Studies have shown through brain imaging that the lower the number of receptors, the higher your likelihood of addiction may be.

Research regarding our genetic makeup and its relation to addiction is still ongoing. However, through genetic testing, it may be possible to one day determine much more specific and tailored treatments to those predisposed to addiction.8

Coping Mechanisms

Everyone should have healthy coping mechanisms — however, many of us don’t know how to introduce that into our lifestyle.

We’re accustomed to practicing behaviors that give us temporary relief without any permanent results.

Here are a few tips you can begin utilizing today:

  • If being around certain people will stir an emotional response (such as family), go over potential topics that may come up and prepare your responses ahead of time.
  • Create a habit to avoid tempting situations, such as going out for drinks after work.
  • If deleting social media is not an option, utilize the unfollow and block buttons to hide content that you know will be a trigger for you.
  • Change your preferred environment, if it’s where you live. Do this by rearranging your furniture or even painting the walls.



  1. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/all-about-addiction/201808/6-ways-your-environment-is-influencing-your-addiction
  2. https://www.addictioncenter.com/addiction/peer-pressure-substance-use/
  3. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0165614713000059
  4. https://www.mentalhealth.gov/what-to-look-for/mental-health-substance-use-disorders
  5. https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/common-comorbidities-substance-use-disorders/part-1-connection-between-substance-use-disorders-mental-illness
  6. https://www.multivu.com/players/English/8294451-cigna-us-loneliness-survey/docs/IndexReport_1524069371598-173525450.pdf
  7. https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/genetics-epigenetics-addiction
  8. https://www.apa.org/monitor/2008/06/genes-addict
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