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Where Substance Abuse Begins

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Why Do People Start to Abuse Alcohol and Drugs?

Many factors play a role in why people begin to use drugs. When asking why people do drugs, it is important to understand that only that initial usage, that first moment when they make the decision to use, is voluntary. From there on out, the situation continues due to the physical demands of the chemical substance and what that does to the brain.

But, let’s take a closer look. Why do people start taking drugs in the first place? What spurs that initial connection?

It could be family dynamic. They’ve grow up in a world of alcohol or drug abuse. It is part of the behaviors they learned growing up. It’s what they consider normal. Children often feel this way about their parents when they’ve seen their parents live relatively normal lives while drinking alcohol or using illegal substances.

More commonly, those first instances begin as a result of peer pressure. For youth, when a neighborhood child or someone at school encourages the use of alcohol or drugs, it becomes nearly impossible for young adults, teens, or even 10 to 12-year-old students to say no.

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22% of mental health cases also have substance abuse disorders associated or contributing to the severity of the problem.


Environmental Factors that Influence Addiction

Just as the National Institute on Drug Abuse reiterates that environment plays a significant role as to whether an individual turns to drug abuse, and, perhaps more importantly, whether they ultimately seek treatment. A person’s environment includes influences from:

  • Peer pressure
  • Stress
  • Physical abuse
  • Sexual abuse
  • Economic status
  • Quality of life
  • Their family and friends

When there is an early exposure to drugs and alcohol, young children and teenagers learn to accept it as a normal component of life. Peer pressure enforces this perception. Young adults and teenagers tend to abuse drugs due to the peer pressure in hopes of just being normal. They see it as the solution to stress, pain, or abuse. They see it as a way to get help. More so, some begin on this path as a direct result of struggling with addiction from birth. Prenatal exposure, for example, creates a greater influence for individuals to struggle with the disease for many years to come.

The environment surrounding a person from his or her youngest of ages will play a role in whether they use, but also in what they see drug use as – a solution to pain or a life-threatening situation. This plays a role in their ability and willingness to seek out and use help provided to them as well.

How Genetics & Genetic Pre-disposition Contribute to Alcoholism and Drug Abuse

If your father drank or your mother spent years recovering from alcohol abuse, are you likely to face the same path? Some evidence exists that show that there is a predisposition to use drugs and alcohol based on genetics. Keep in mind this does not always happen. Just because a genetic link exists does not mean the individual will become addicted with a simple drink. That’s not the way it works.

Studies indicate that about 40 to 60 percent of an individual’s likelihood to develop an alcohol addict stems from genetics. Everyone has genetic predispositions to some things. For some people, there is a link to abuse alcohol that cannot be changed. This type of genetic predisposition comes from evolution. People, like animals, tend to pass along key traits from one generation to the next. Some are good, some are bad.

Another way to look at this influence is in how a person makes the decision to use. For example, many people find a food they love by trying it once. The brain makes a note of that. When it wants to feel pleasure again, it seeks out pleasurable experiences from their past. There is a link between that food and pleasure. The same happens with alcohol. A link forms. Once it is there, due to genetics or not, that link encourages people to seek out alcohol when they want to feel pleasure.

Everyone has the potential to develop alcoholism – you don’t have to have a genetic link to be at risk for it. However some people are more likely to develop an addiction than others. It’s important to recognize this as it will play a significant role in their future treatment, too.

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Experimenting with Drugs & Alcohol: Sometimes Substance Abuse Problems are Situational


For some people, their situations play a role in when and how they begin to abuse alcohol or drugs. For example, many situational alcoholics begin drinking later in life. Life changes lead to it. They may drink to relax. They drink to avoid feeling angry. Some drink to escape the stresses of life including financial problems, trouble at home, and relationship breakups. Others drink to avoid feeling depressed, anxious, or out of control.

Drugs and alcohol here are not from their environmental surroundings but rather the way they feel and experience day to day life. Most commonly, these individuals drink alcohol and drugs as a way to relieve stress of some type in their life. Alcohol and drugs allows them to relax, forget about the situation, and take a break from their concerns.

The problem here is that using actually worsens their situation. In these situations, the dependency on a substance to improve quality of life only makes those instances of sobriety impossible to manage. Then, things get worse. When an individual is struggling with addiction and uses heavily, side effects occur. These range from health consequences to the liver, heart, and overall health as well as life consequences, such as worsening relationships and experiences. Here, the addiction just worsens the outcome.

Many people with situational addiction turn to alcohol and drugs routinely, over and over again, to find peace. They medicate themselves more so with every passing day because of their inability to ever improve the actually initial stressor.


Co-occurring Disorders: Self Medicating to Feel Normal


Another worrisome reason people use drugs is because they are trying to prescribe away their existing struggles. Beyond just stress, some people are battling mental illness.

Depression is one of the most common reasons turn to alcohol and drugs in the first place. When you consider why people do drugs, it becomes essential to examine their mental state.

Drugs and alcohol can, in fact, help to hide the symptoms of some of the most debilitating mental illnesses. The term used here self-medicating is one that describes an instance in which some type of drug or substance, including alcohol, is used to mask or hide the symptoms of some type of mental health illness.

  • Stimulant drugs, such as cocaine and methamphetamine, are often used to improve focus, attention, and energy problems. It aids in combating depression.
  • Marijuana is often a mood elevator. Individuals use it when faced with anxiety and depression.
  • Depressants like alcohol are often used for those struggling from anxiety because they make it easier to escape, improve sociability, and can aid in sleep.

No matter why individuals face these types of addictions, one thing is for sure. Addicts are victims of addiction. They deserve symphony and condemnation.

Only when they are given the tools they need to overcome their mental health concerns, environmental factors, or other stressors will they be able to move forward towards improving their quality of life.

Recovery takes detox but it also takes uncovering the factors that made them use so that a solution to those underlying problems can occur.


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Reputable Sources are Important When Learning About the Disease Model of Addiction


No one likes fake news. In this day and age, it is important to know where your information is coming from so that the important decisions that must be made are indeed made to the best of our knowledge. Knowledge is power and when it comes to substance abuse treatment, the power needed to overcome the stigma associated with drug and alcohol addiction needs to come from an unbiased source.

We utilize information that is not funded by organizations that could benefit from certain outcomes and proven or tested to be effective for substance abuse treatment and aftercare. Below are the sources we used to develop the content on our website and all written materials from ABTRS. We will continue to try to provide our patients and their families with reputable sources that are up to date and relevant.


NIDA. (2018, January 17). Principles of Drug Addiction Treatment: A Research-Based Guide (Third Edition). Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/principles-drug-addiction-treatment-research-based-guide-third-edition on 2019, February 18

NIDA. (2018, July 20). Drugs, Brains, and Behavior: The Science of Addiction. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugs-brains-behavior-science-addiction on 2019, February 18

Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. What Is Substance Abuse Treatment? A Booklet for Families. HHS Publication No. (SMA) 14-4126. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2004.

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