Why Do People Start Abusing Drugs and Alcohol?

By The Fix staff 06/04/18

No matter the substance, no matter the reason, people who have turned to alcohol and/or drugs have turned away from the causes behind their problems.

sad man drinking alcohol
A Better Today understands that the reasons for substance misuse are as diverse as the people who suffer from the disease.

There is no one single reason why people begin to abuse drugs and alcohol. In fact, it’s oftentimes very difficult to pinpoint where and when someone’s decision to use and abuse substances takes root. One of the most common reasons people begin to use drugs is because of what’s going on in their family. Family dynamics can play a huge influence on people’s addictions. For many individuals, they’ve grown up surrounded by alcohol or drug abuse, which simply becomes “normal” for them. When parents abuse alcohol and drugs yet they seem to live otherwise ordinary, functional lives, their children tend to believe they can get away with drinking alcohol and using drugs, too. Family isn’t the root of all problems, though. The power of peer pressure can’t be ignored. For many kids, when someone at school or in their neighborhood offers them alcohol or drugs, it can become nearly impossible for them to say no. Young adults and teenagers often give in to peer pressure in the hopes of feeling normal or, perhaps, seeing a solution to the stress or pain in their lives. Still, aside from family and friends, the underlying reasons behind drug and alcohol abuse are as complicated as they are many.

When it comes to someone who is struggling with substance abuse, it’s important to first understand what their environment looks like. The National Institute on Drug Abuse contends that environmental factors directly affect whether someone turns to substance abuse. While peer pressure is among the most significant factors, others include physical and sexual abuse, socioeconomic status, and the overall quality of their life. The environment that surrounded someone in their youth plays a large role in not only whether they use and abuse substances, but how they view drug and alcohol use overall. After all, environmental factors are among the main aspects taken into consideration when someone first enters a treatment program. Many individualized alcohol and drug treatment plans are built around these exact factors, with each plan customized and tailored to an individual’s specific needs.

Genetics can contribute to alcoholism and drug abuse, too. Evidence exists that there is a genetic predisposition to drug and alcohol use, though it’s not always a guaranteed connection. (Some studies suggest that up to 60% of someone’s likelihood to become an alcoholic is genetic.) Just because a parent struggles with substances, though, their children aren’t automatically doomed to the same series of problems. That said, people pass traits down from one generation to the next—and not all of them are good ones. In many ways, it comes down to the science of the brain. While genetics may tee someone up for drug abuse, it’s the drug abuse itself that makes permanent changes in the brain. It may be someone’s choice to try alcohol or drugs but, in the end, the effects of substance abuse on the brain can leave many people with no choice but to continue using.

Interestingly enough, substance abuse is sometimes simply a matter of circumstance. There might not be a genetic path leading someone straight to alcoholism, for example; instead, it may be more likely that someone finds themselves turning to alcohol because of their situations. Life changes like financial trouble, divorce, depression or work issues (among countless others) can cause someone to pick up the bottle. Many situational alcoholics begin drinking much later in life than, say, a kid who was introduced to their first drink by a neighborhood friend. They drink to avoid feeling the way they do or enduring the pain they’re going through. Alcohol and drugs provide an immediate escape from their situations, providing stress relief or relaxation. Ironically, this only serves to make their situations even worse. Dependency on any substance to improve one’s life just makes life that much harder to manage. From very serious health consequences to life problems like broken relationships, situational addictions can only make matters worse and cause sobriety to be that much more elusive.

It's also worth mentioning that some people self-medicate themselves to feel normal. They try to prescribe away their day-to-day struggles with stress and sadness. That said, some of those people are also struggling mental illness. Anxiety and depression are two major reasons why individuals turn to drugs and alcohol in the first place. Someone’s mental state is the key to understanding why they use. Drugs and alcohol, however, can hide many of the most common, if not obvious symptoms of mental illness. People self-medicate for a wide number of reasons. Stimulants, such as cocaine and methamphetamine, are used to improve focus and attention. Marijuana is often used to fight anxiety and depression. Depressants like alcohol are often used by people struggling with anxiety. No matter the substance, no matter the reason, people who have turned to alcohol and/or drugs have turned away from the causes behind their problems. Treatment can help individuals whose alcohol and drug use has gotten so out of hand that it’s not only affecting them, but everyone around them. Sometimes problems don’t even seem like problems until a person starts asking themselves some tough questions. More often than not, if they don’t seek treatment, they’ll never understand why they’re endlessly caught in the dark, devastating cycle of addiction.

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