Substance abuse is a problem that plagues millions of people around the world and there are millions of new cases each year. Finding out what causes addiction is a top priority for researchers, substance abuse professionals, as well as the loved ones of those battling addiction.
There are a lot of theories on what leads a person down the path of addiction to drugs and/or alcohol – some that link it to past trauma and others that focus on biochemistry and genetics. In particular, childhood has proven to be a critical time as it relates to addiction because many of our relationships, coping skills, and social interactions are solidified during this time.
The Role of Childhood in Addiction
Researchers have worked tirelessly to find out what really causes addictive behaviors and some have focused on the role of adverse childhood experiences (ACE). According to Dr. Daniel Sumrok of the University of Tennessee’s Center for Addiction Sciences, negative or traumatic childhood experience are a precursor for addictive behaviors, especially when it comes to drugs and alcohol.
According to a study conducted by the CDC and Kaiser, ACE categorizes childhood experiences into three distinct areas: abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction. All forms of abuse are recognized – from sexual to physical to emotional. Both high-level and low-level neglect are addressed in ACE and range from not being shown affection by parents or other family members and the failure of parents to properly feed and clothe their children. Household dysfunction is the third component of ACE and ranges from dealing with one or more incarcerated parents, living with a family member with a mental health or substance use disorder, as well as more common events like divorce.
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The ACE Score’s Role in Addiction
Researchers use this information to determine an ACE score. The higher the number of ACEs, the higher the risk of developing a substance use disorder. Since the ACE score had such a correlation to addiction,
Dr. Sumrok determined that those with an ACE score of 3 or higher – meaning the person experienced some form of all three components – are 90% more likely to battle substance addiction. Additionally, mental health issues were more prevalent among those who had high ACE scores and suicide prevalence also increased as the ACE score increased.
While adverse childhood experiences have been connected to an increased risk for drug or alcohol addiction, not all traumatic experiences guarantee that a person will struggle with substance abuse. For those who have experienced some form of trauma, it often seems easier to try to forget it happened but this usually backfires. Others have experienced adverse childhood experiences but do not think they had a significant impact on their lives. There are short, online quizzes that can help people identify their ACEs and how they may be related to problems in adulthood. Professional therapists work to uncover the causes of addiction, identify triggers, and help the addicted person develop appropriate coping skills for long-term recovery.
The Brain’s Role in Addiction
Addiction is complicated, so determining the exact cause is something that has puzzled researchers for years. Each person experiences addiction differently, making it even more difficult to identify underlying causes.
Despite this variance, National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) researchers have narrowed it down to three common traits among those dealing with substance addiction:
- First, drugs and alcohol effectively desensitize the addicted person’s brain. This means that the more a person uses drugs, the more desensitized the brain becomes and drugs begin to take precedence over anything else that previously brought the person pleasure.
- Second, the brain becomes conditioned to the effect of drugs or alcohol and becomes addicted to these responses. In effect, the brain quickly builds up a tolerance to drugs, making the person crave more and more in search of the previous high.
- Third, drugs and alcohol negatively impact the parts of the brain that are responsible for self-control and decision-making.
Most studies on the causes of substance addiction focus on the limbic system, a part of the human brain that recognizes rewards and euphoric feelings. Essentially, when a person ingests mood-altering drugs or alcohol, the limbic system is stimulated and euphoria-causing brain chemicals are released. Once these feelings are activated, the cycle of addiction begins as the person begins to seek the same feeling – or high – over and over.
Biochemically, the brain chemical dopamine is what sends the signal to the limbic system. Drugs and alcohol have a strange effect on brain chemistry and mimic the effect of dopamine or causing the brain to produce too much of the chemical. In fact, research has shown that the brain produces up to 10 times more dopamine that natural pleasurable activities. This overproduction of dopamine is what results in the high that an addicted person experiences and interferes with the brain’s ability to produce normal dopamine levels. Once a person becomes addicted to drugs and the brain’s chemistry is thrown out of whack, it is very difficult to feel good without drugs.
Comprehensive Addiction Treatment, No Matter the Cause
Regardless of what causes addiction, a comprehensive addiction treatment program is necessary to break the patterns of addiction and assist the individuals in maintaining sobriety long term. The best treatment programs accommodate those dealing with adverse childhood experiences, dual diagnosis of addiction and mental health issues, and various addiction-related issues.
Ocean Hills Recovery offers a proven effective 90-day inpatient drug and alcohol treatment program, intervention services, and tailored programs that help those suffering from addiction navigate withdrawal, treatment, and aftercare. If you or someone you know is dealing with addiction, contact the professionals at Ocean Hills Recovery to get started on the road to recovery.
About the author:
Greg opened his home and heart to alcoholics and addicts in 2003. He is a Certified Addictions Treatment Counselor (CATCI). Starting in 2009 Greg has fostered the growth of Ocean Hills Recovery into one of the most respected and effective treatment centers in the area and has been working with people with addictions since March of 2001. Greg believes in a holistic approach to recovery. His focus is on drug alcohol addiction treatment with a combination of 12 Step work, therapy and counseling, and the rejuvenation of the body through healthful eating and exercise. He has designed his program to foster a family-like atmosphere and believes that people in recovery are just beginning their lives. He encourages the people he works with to learn to enjoy life in sobriety. Greg is married to Nicole; they have two adorable sons together and an energetic yellow Labrador Retriever.