What is Drug Addiction and What Causes It?

Drug addiction is a disease in the brain characterized by continual substance use, despite the knowledge of harm brought on by these substances. An addiction occurs when drug users begin to lose control of their usage and feel they no longer have power over their drug use.

While addiction can occur from drug and alcohol use, it’s not always a guarantee and there are determining factors into whether or not one’s substance use will spiral into addiction or not. While some people are more predisposed to the development of an addiction than others, it can affect anybody without discrimination. Addiction can affect anybody no matter their age, gender, but there are certain factors which can make the possibility of addiction more likely for people.

Nurture vs. Nature: The Psychology of Addiction

Drug Addiction Definition

An age-old comparison is that of nurture (learned behaviour) vs. nature (inherited disposition) and the roles that each of these factors plays in substance addiction. Certain schools of thought believe that one factor outweighs the other. Some believe that addiction is purely learned behaviour, others think that addiction can be inherited by family members and parents who also struggle with substance abuse disorders themselves.

Genetic Predisposition to Addiction

An example of a genetic predisposition to a drug or alcohol addiction would be having a family member, a grandparent for example, who you never met or had any interaction with, who struggled with substance abuse issues. In later years, despite not having any immediate interaction with family members or environmental factors, you develop a drug and alcohol addiction of your own. This behaviour is not learned but is a genetic predisposition, an inherited behaviour, and an argument that addiction can be caused by genetics.

Another example takes a look at children of addicts who have been adopted into families where drug and alcohol use is uncommon or nonexistent, and themselves end up developing an addiction, despite a lack of that environmental influence.

Addiction Through Learned Behaviour

On the other side of the coin entirely, an addiction can be formed when somebody is continually exposed to addicts, substances in the house, and the behaviour that goes alongside drug and alcohol addiction. Many times in our formative years, if we’re constantly surrounded by drugs and alcohol at home, we’ll turn to these as a form to cope with the instability of the home life, or because it’s what we know or are familiar with. Sometimes the children of addicted parents are coerced into drinking or using at a young age, oftentimes to help the addicts justify their own behaviour.

Neither nurture vs. nature dooms anybody into addiction. While genetics cannot be changed, addiction is not a permanent life sentence. All a genetic predisposition to drug and alcohol addiction is just that – a predisposition, not a guarantee. Even years of learned behaviour of addiction growing up can be reversed, and coping mechanisms can be taught through therapy.

Who Is Most Susceptible To Abusing Drugs and Alcohol?

Drug Addiction Causes

There are people who are able to repeatedly abuse drugs and alcohol in unsafe situations, but never develop a full-blown addiction or habit, and are able to easily quit using these substances with no negative effects. There are others who choose to use drugs only once and immediately develop the addictive tendencies which follow them around and perpetuate an even worse addiction. In addition to the nature vs. nurture argument, there are other contributing factors which can make one more susceptible to addiction.

Individuals With Mental Health Disorders

When looking at a predisposition to drug and alcohol addiction, somebody who is struggling with an undiagnosed or improperly medicated mental health disorder is far more likely to attempt to self-medicate with street drugs.

Somebody who suffers from depression, anxiety, BPD/bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or any other number of mental illnesses has damaged or nonfunctional levels of serotonin or pleasure receptors in their brains, and they tend to seek out ways to feel good. Oftentimes these are found in illicit substances which provide a short-term release of endorphins, but ultimately are far more damaging as the user begins to develop an addiction. Where street drugs provide a short-term high, they deplete any existing serotonin resources, and the user is left in a worse place than when they started.

When it comes to dealing with a mental health disorder, a medical professional is required to make a proper assessment, and a regime of medication, counselling and therapy which is custom-tailored to that individual. Even if a person has succumbed to illicit substances for self-medication, there is still hope. Where serotonin resources have been depleted, through proper medication the brain can begin to function again and begin producing its own serotonin, and therapeutic methods can be taught to properly cope with challenges, and the individual can begin to develop healthy behaviours and reward systems.

Victims of Childhood Trauma and Abuse

Suffering abuse in our formative years can be absolutely devastating to our cognitive behaviour development. Children who experience trauma and abuse in these younger years, or even through adolescence and adulthood, may turn to drugs and alcohol to cope with the things that they have endured. It’s estimated that up to two-thirds of addicts suffered a trauma in their childhood, many experiencing physical or sexual abuse. When a person is unable to cope with or overcome these traumas, one of the easiest things to do is to block it out with drugs and alcohol. With counselling and therapy, these events can be assessed and traumas can be overcome in a safe space.

The Different Types of Drug Addiction

Types of Drug Addiction

When looking at the maelstrom of factors in a drug addiction, we have to consider the different ways that different substances form their addictions within us. Certain substances, such as heroin and opiates, have a tendency to become more physically addictive than other drugs, because of the intense withdrawal symptoms. Other drugs, even marijuana, can cause an emotional or psychological addiction, despite having no scientifically proven physically addictive properties.

Physical Symptoms

The physical addiction symptoms of drug abuse are more commonly found with opiates and methamphetamine, and particularly when a user is experiencing withdrawal from the drug. At these times, the user becomes so desperate to ease these symptoms that they may find themselves stealing, or turning to other criminal behaviours to get their next fix.

Physical withdrawal from drugs can be its own personal hell, and the most common symptoms are:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Trembling
  • Shaking
  • Muscle aches and cramps
  • Diarrhea
  • Hot and cold flashes
  • Runny nose


Alcohol addiction can cause a physical dependency to the drug very quickly, and one of the scariest things about alcohol is the physical effects it can have on somebody in recovery who relapses. After abstaining from alcohol, the user’s body changes, and a relapse can trigger the physical dependency to the drug nearly instantly. The way an alcoholic functions with alcohol is different than simply a person who likes to drink – the drug affects their body in a more devastating way, and their physical dependence begins almost immediately after relapse. Continually quitting alcohol becomes more and more dangerous with each attempt, and the withdrawal symptoms of alcohol can become deadly over time. There are a few key differences in alcohol withdrawal and added symptoms:

  • Seizures
  • Hallucinations
  • Delirium tremens, or ‘DT’s’


Delirium tremens (DT’s) is a symptom reserved solely for alcohol withdrawal, and usually occurs about three days into withdrawal. DTs cause intense feelings of panic and anxiety, hostility, confusion, and changes in heart rate and blood pressure which can be terrifying to the person going through withdrawal. Alcohol can be the most dangerous drug to go through withdrawal, and should be supervised by a medical professional, or take place in a detox facility/rehab center.

Psychological and Emotional Symptoms

A psychological addiction to substances is that little voice in the back of your brain telling you that you need this drug. When it comes to quitting cigarettes, generally the physical withdrawal symptoms last 3-7 days, but arguably the hardest part of quitting smoking is the psychological dependency your body has built upon it. The association of the acts, and the knowledge that using will make you ‘feel better’.

When we indulge in these substances, a rush of dopamine, serotonin, and other feel-good chemicals are released into the pleasure centers of our brain. This is part of the high, and the reward center becomes addicted to this sensation. This is why our brains begin to psychologically crave the substances that are making them feel so good! Sudden cessation of these dopamine-inducing substances will cause us to feel:

  • Irritable
  • Anxious
  • Moody
  • Low energy
  • Depressed
  • Apathetic
  • Difficulty managing stress
  • Impaired cognitive abilities


Getting over the psychological and emotional addiction of substances lasts far longer than the physical symptoms. A person can be clean and sober for months, or even years, and experience a traumatic event or even simply a bad day, and give in to the psychological addiction and relapse. It takes willpower to stand firm against the psychological dependence that drugs and alcohol can create within oneself, and it’s for this reason that proper coping mechanisms and counselling needs to be a part of active recovery.

Drug Tolerance And The Risk of Overdose

What Causes Addiction?

The more time goes on as an individual is abusing substances, the higher their tolerance becomes. Where they once only needed a small amount of the drug, they now need more to achieve that initial high, which becomes dangerous and increases the risk of overdose, particularly with opiates. However, more and more street drugs are being cut with fentanyl, such as cocaine and ketamine, and this means that more and more people are becoming at risk for a potentially deadly overdose.

Fentanyl in Opiates and Overdose Risk

Fentanyl is a synthetic opiate which is up to 100x stronger than any other opiates such as morphine, oxycodone or heroin, but produces the same effect. Therefore, only a miniscule amount of the drug is required to get the same high that these drugs would provide, and in cases, even just one grain of fentanyl can push a user over the edge into an overdose. Most times, people are unaware that fentanyl is in the drugs they’re using, making the risk of overdose much higher.

Overdose Symptoms

It’s important to recognize the symptoms of overdose, as knowing can potentially save a loved one’s life if you happen to be around. Even with more party drugs like cocaine, ecstasy and ketamine being laced with fentanyl, there are reports of people passing away from an overdose on what they thought was one drug, but turned out to be another. While living in an opioid crisis, there is no such thing as safe drug consumption. Important overdose signs to look out for are:

  • Dilated pupils
  • Slurred speech
  • Loss of consciousness, or nodding out
  • Laboured and shallow breathing


A fentanyl overdose can be nearly immediate, and it’s important to act quickly and call 9-1-1 if you think somebody is experiencing an overdose. Naloxone kits are readily available and Naloxone training available in most cities in case of overdose. Naloxone acts as an ‘opiate antagonist’ and can delay the symptoms of a fentanyl overdose, but Naloxone on its own does not always guarantee survival. It is imperative to seek medical help for an overdose.

Recovery Options For Addiction

Even in the throes of what feels like an unmanageable addiction, recovery is always possible. As time goes on, it becomes more difficult to imagine a life without drugs and alcohol, but addiction can always be beat with the proper steps put into place. No matter how hopeless it may seem, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. When it comes to recovering from drug and alcohol addiction, there are a few key steps to take to effectively stop substance abuse, and ensure successful management post-recovery to prevent relapse.

Detox and Withdrawal Management

The first steps in recovery from addiction is to manage the withdrawal symptoms under proper medical supervision. This stage of recovery most commonly needs to occur in a detox facility with round-the-clock supervision and medication management to ease the physical withdrawal symptoms. Oftentimes detox facilities handle the first 7-10 days after cessation from substances to get through the physical withdrawal, but there are the psychological and emotional factors to still take care of. If one leaves a detox facility without a clear treatment plan in mind, there is a greater chance of relapse.


After the physical withdrawal from substances has been managed, it’s recommended that the individual be placed in a rehab facility. Spending a month, or as long as needed in a rehab center can help give some space between the substance abuse and the new life that will be created as part of the recovery plan for the addict. During this time, assessment can be conducted by a medical professional and a recovery plan created to ensure long-term sobriety.

Counselling and Therapy

Counselling and therapy are resources available within a rehab center and most times the addiction’s underlying cause (trauma, mental illness, learned behaviour, or genetic predisposition) must be addressed to begin creating coping mechanisms. When unhealthy coping mechanisms have been relied upon for so long, an individual requires counselling techniques such as CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) or DBT (Dialectical Behavioural Therapy) to reframe the way their brains have been functioning and set healthy coping mechanisms and thought patterns in place.

Seeking Support From Loved Ones

Having a support system in place is key to long-term recovery. It’s important to recognize the people in your life who will support you in your recovery in different ways – whether that’s being a shoulder to cry on, somebody who will give you their time and dedicate themselves to sober activities with you, accompanying you to AA/NA meetings, or giving you space where you don’t have to feel alone.

Alberta Addiction Treatment

Treatment services in Alberta range from all of the aforementioned, and the team at Andy Bhatti can connect you or your loved one with the proper resources needed to manage your recovery and overcome the addiction. Our team focuses on placing individuals struggling with addiction in recovery centers and implementing proper recovery strategies in Alberta, British Columbia, and Ontario.

Alberta Intervention Services

If somebody you know is struggling with an addiction to drugs or alcohol, our team can help. The first step is to host an intervention, which provides a few purposes – firstly, it allows a safe space for all concerned parties to speak directly to the addict and let them know they are loved and cared for, secondly – it puts a plan into place to outline the steps for recovery, with our team, and outlines the responsibilities of all of those involved in the individual’s recovery.

Recovery is possible, no matter how much damage one may have done to themselves. If you know somebody in need of addiction recovery services in Alberta, contact the Andy Bhatti team today to begin the assessment process and planning for recovery.

Together, we can overcome addiction.


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