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Causes of Addiction: A Guide by Canadian Centre for Addictions

Causes of Addiction: A Guide by Canadian Centre for Addictions
Written by Seth Fletcher on September 20, 2023
Medical editor Dr. Jonathan Siegel
Last update: May 13, 2024

What are the main causes of addiction? Take a look at our comprehensive guide on what causes addiction and learn more about how to prevent it altogether. 

Addiction is a brain disease that is associated with  compulsive, uncontrolled substance use despite obvious harmful consequences. The scope of addiction includes behaviours like gambling, sex, and other  activities like eating, gaming, or using social media. Addiction usually starts as an experimental use of a substance. Continued involvement leaves the individual with intense cravings for the object of addiction. Soon enough, they lose control over their drug use and discover that they can’t stop even if they want to. 

This loss of willpower happens because addiction changes brain chemistry. It subverts how a person registers pleasure and corrupts normal drives like motivation and learning. How quickly this happens depends on the type of substance or activity. Addiction affects people from all walks of life. In Canada, approximately 21% of the population (about 6 million people) will meet the criteria for a substance use disorder or addiction in their lifetime. So what are the causes of addiction? The answer to this question is not so straightforward. CCFA explores the causes of addiction, prevention, and how to help a person struggling with addiction.

Key Takeaways

  • Addiction is a chronic disease of the brain that affects people from all walks of life
  • Addiction is often caused by an interplay of risk factors and has no single cause
  • Knowing the possible causes of addiction can equip you to respond appropriately when you face situations that may tempt you into drug use
  • The most effective treatments for addictions are those designed to meet the patient’s specific needs

Types of Substance Abuse

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5-TR) indicates that most psychoactive substances have the potential for abuse and addiction. Substance abuse disorders listed in the DSM-5 TR include: 

  • Alcohol-related Disorders

Alcohol-related disorders involve heavy or frequent use of alcoholic beverages, even when it’s causing physical and emotional harm to the user and others around them.

  • Caffeine-related Disorders

Caffeine-related disorders are characterized by a problematic pattern of caffeine consumption with the desire to control use and unsuccessful attempts to do so despite obvious negative consequences. 

  • Cannabis-related Disorders

Cannabis-related disorders are a group of mild, moderate, or severe issues that may occur due to problematic marijuana use.

  • Hallucinogen-related Disorders

Hallucinogen-related disorders are a group of disorders that occur due to the use of hallucinogens such as PCP, LSD, Psilocybin (mushrooms), DMT, Ayahuasca, mescaline, and ketamine

  • Opioid-related Disorders

Opioid-related disorders are a group of mental health disorders in which a problematic pattern of opioid misuse leads to physical and emotional distress. 

  • Sedative, Hypnotic, or Anxiolytic-related Disorders

Sedative, hypnotic, or anxiolytic-related disorder occurs from misusing sedatives, hypnotics, or anxiolytic drugs. These disorders are characterized by the repeated use of medications like benzodiazepines, carbamates, and barbiturates despite the significant physical and psychological problems they cause.

  • Stimulant-related Disorders

Stimulant-related disorders include stimulant intoxication, stimulant withdrawal, and stimulant use disorder. These conditions arise from problematic stimulant use patterns that lead to significant problems, distress, or other impairment. 

  • Tobacco-related Disorders

Tobacco-related disorders include tobacco use disorders and tobacco withdrawal. These conditions are characterized by a dependence on nicotine, the addictive component of cigarettes, cigars, vapes, nicotine pens, and other tobacco products. They are marked by using increasingly large amounts of tobacco products despite adverse effects, intense cravings, and unsuccessful attempts at quitting. 

There is a lot of controversy around behavioural addictions, but the DSM-5 also lists gambling addiction and Internet gaming disorder as two types of behavioural addictions. 

If you or a loved one is struggling with a substance-related disorder, the Canadian Centre for Addictions can help. CCFA offers treatment for substance-use disorders in an environment that inspires lasting change and gives our clients the best chance at recovery. Call us today at 1-855-499-9446.

Which Substances Are More Addictive?

The addictive potential of substances comes from their ability to stimulate the brain’s reward system. The more addictive substances are quick-acting and flood the brain with large amounts of dopamine. They also have a high street value and cause severe withdrawal symptoms. Some of the more addictive substances are:

  • Opioids (heroin, morphine, fentanyl, oxycodone, hydromorphone)
  • Cocaine
  • Nicotine
  • Barbiturates (phenobarbital, pentobarbital, secobarbital, amobarbital)
  • Methamphetamines

Addiction Risk Factors

Addiction can affect people from all backgrounds and beliefs. It is not necessarily the result of poor choices or the absence of willpower. Genes, environment, age, and medical history all play a role in the development of addiction. Some types of drugs and their routes of administration are also addiction risk factors. Drugs like cocaine and heroin flood the brain with so much dopamine, leaving the user with a powerful high that makes them quickly become addicted. Smoked or injected drugs are more likely to be addictive than when swallowed.

Who is More Prone to Addiction?

There are risk factors associated with addiction. Young people are more vulnerable to addiction as their brains are still developing and are more susceptible to being altered by drugs. Environmental risk factors like peer pressure, economic status, poor academic performance, and a negative home environment growing up can also push people towards addiction.

Possible Complications

Addictions can lead to a range of complications, which could be physical, psychological, or personal. Snorting substances like heroin or cocaine could cause damage to the nasal cartilage, and tobacco use can cause respiratory illnesses and lung cancer. Injecting drugs may cause skin and muscle injury at injection sites, while people who drive under the influence of drugs or alcohol risk injuries to themselves and others.

Addiction to opioids and other substances also comes with the risk of overdose, which can lead to coma and death. In Canada, a total of 7,328 apparent opioid-related deaths occurred between January and December 2022, an average of 20 deaths per day. Addictive substances increase the pressure on the heart and blood vessels, increasing the risks of strokes and other cardiovascular complications. Pregnant women who are addicted to substances also put their unborn babies at risk of congenital anomalies or fetal death.

While psychological problems may lead to addiction, they may also be caused by addiction. There may be reciprocal interplay between cause and effect.  Anxiety, depression, social isolation, and suicidal tendencies may manifest as long-term effects of addiction. Substance addiction may also negatively affect the addict’s relationships, finances, routines, and hygiene. They could also get into legal trouble if they drive while intoxicated or resort to crime to sustain an addiction. 

Causes of Addiction

So, what are the causes of substance abuse and addiction to drugs? There’s no single reason a person develops an addiction, but examining possible addiction causes can offer insight into why a person has become addicted to a substance. 


A person’s genetic composition may be one of the major reasons they become hooked on a substance. Studies show that genes may account for 40% to 60% of addiction vulnerability. Genes could explain why some people become addicted and others don’t. If you have a parent or sibling with a substance abuse disorder, you may have a higher chance of developing that same disorder. People with addictive personalities may be at risk of various substance use disorders. They may choose not to drink or do drugs but still develop a behavioural addiction. 

Mental Health

There is a complex link between addictions and mental health conditions. Research shows that 43% of people receiving treatment for substance use disorders were at risk of nonmedical use of prescription opioids. Individuals with untreated mental health disorders (depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia) are also likely to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol. While these substances may relieve symptoms of the condition for some time, they will worsen them long-term. 

Since addictions are the consequences of several risk factors, it’s difficult to determine if a mental illness alone can trigger substance use disorder. However, a mental health issue is likely to accelerate the progression of a substance use disorder.

Family History

Growing up in a family where one or more members have struggled with addiction makes you more likely to develop a substance use disorder. Seeing addiction-influenced conflicts or aggressive behaviour while growing up may be triggers for drug use and addiction. The trauma from seeing parents or relatives affected by addiction does not necessarily deter people from turning to substances. In many cases, it presents drug use as one of the ways to cope with problems.

Biological Factors

Biological factors like gender and metabolic rates may play a role in the development of addiction. Generally speaking, men may be more likely to get involved in alcohol and drug use, putting them at higher risks of addiction and overdose. Women who become addicts are more susceptible to cravings that lead to relapse. 

Individuals with higher metabolic rates may break down drugs quickly, causing the effects to wear off sooner than in those with slower metabolism. This can be frustrating for people on prescription medications like opioids, causing them to use more of the drug and increasing their addiction risk. 

Environmental Factors

Environmental factors are one of the most significant contributors to addiction risk. When growing up, young people without adequate parental influence are more likely to experiment with drugs and alcohol. They may turn to drugs and alcohol to cope with the emotions of neglect they feel. Peer pressure and a desire to fit in can also push teens to the edge of addiction. Exposure to drugs or alcohol in college or high school can also prompt use that can become a springboard for addiction later on. Residents of poorer areas may also have easier access to drugs, putting them at higher risk of drug use and addiction. 

Changes in Brain’s Reward Circuit 

All addictive substances affect the brain’s reward circuitry. Natural activities like eating or working out also affect the brain’s dopamine pathway to a lesser extent. When a person uses alcohol or drugs for the first time, the brain receives a powerful, abnormal surge of dopamine within seconds to minutes, delivering a jolt of intense pleasure. If the individual continues using the drug, the brain adapts to this abnormal state, and the reward circuit begins to change physically. These changes make the brain seek the drug reflexively, turning the individual into an addict. 

Chronic Stress

Stress is normal, and stress responses motivate us toward solving problems and achieving goals. Too much stress, however, can trigger anxiety and depression, risk factors for substance abuse. Chronic stress is long-lasting and goes on for a prolonged period. It is one of the key risk factors in the development of addiction and relapse vulnerability. Individuals with chronic stress who lack healthy coping mechanisms may turn to drugs, increasing their chances of addiction. 

Adverse Childhood Experiences or PTSD

Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) or trauma may play a role in addiction development. ACEs can include:

  • Sexual or physical abuse
  • Neglect 
  • Bullying
  • Parental divorce
  • Racial or ethnic discrimination.

Research shows that people exposed to ACEs experience brain changes and are likely to make poorer health choices. The more ACEs a person is exposed to, the higher their likelihood of turning to substances as a coping mechanism. 

Diagnosing Addiction

Addiction is a complex condition and often difficult to detect unless the person or someone close to them acknowledges the extent of their problem and the need for treatment. Blood tests and laboratory screenings can detect the presence of drugs in the body, but these only indicate recent use. In diagnosing addiction, a doctor will ask questions about drug use, frequency, and pattern of use. They will also try to determine whether the drug is impairing the patient’s ability to function and whether they experience withdrawal symptoms when they try to stop using it. 

The DSM-5 TR  lists 11 criteria for diagnosing substance use disorder:

  • Regularly consuming larger amounts of the substance than planned or for a longer period than intended
  • Attempting to stop or reduce substance use and failing 
  • Spending a lot of time obtaining, using, or recovering from substance use
  • Craving the substance or expressing an intense desire to use it
  • Failing to fulfil obligations at home, work, or school due to substance use
  • Continued use of the substance despite the adverse emotional, social, or personal consequences
  • Giving up important work, recreational, or social activities to use the drug
  • Using the substance in places or situations that could lead to harm or injury
  • Continued use of the substance despite being aware of a physical or psychological problem it may have caused or aggravated
  • Needing more of the substance to get the same effects (tolerance)
  • Development of withdrawal symptoms in response to not using or trying to reduce the amount of substance used

According to the DSM-5-TR the severity of addiction is indicated by the number of criteria present. Fulfilling two or three of these criteria would mean a mild substance use disorder. Four to five criteria would be moderate, while six or more points to severe substance use disorder. 

Treating Addiction

The addiction treatment approach depends on the individual’s addiction severity and the substance of choice. The most effective treatments are customized to meet the patient’s unique needs. Addiction treatment typically involves one or a combination of the following options: 


Detoxification is a supervised process that allows addicts to rid their system of drugs and recover from withdrawal symptoms safely. It is often the first step in treating addictions. Sometimes, doctors may need to prescribe medications to help patients cope with unpleasant or dangerous withdrawal symptoms.

Inpatient Rehab

Inpatient rehab is a residential treatment for patients with severe addiction or co-occurring mental health problems. Patients undergoing this treatment receive comprehensive round-the-clock monitoring, medical care, and support. 

Outpatient Rehab

Outpatient rehab also involves treatment at a facility, but the individual is allowed to live at home and return for scheduled appointments. It is ideal for people with mild cases of addiction who are strongly motivated to quit. It is also necessary to have a solid support structure of family members or friends if you opt for outpatient treatment. Individuals who complete inpatient rehab may continue their recovery on an outpatient basis. 


Therapy or counselling for addiction involves individual or group meetings with a licensed expert who attempts to help the patient understand why they’re dependent on the drug. These sessions aim to identify and modify thought patterns and behaviour that cause addiction. Types of therapy employed in addiction treatment include Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT), biofeedback therapy, psychodynamic therapy, experiential therapy, and Motivational Enhancement Therapy (MET). 


Medications may also be prescribed during addiction treatment to reduce cravings or treat symptoms of co-occurring disorders like anxiety or depression. 

Sober Living Homes

Sober living homes are treatment facilities that help recovering addicts transition from inpatient treatment to everyday life. These homes provide the structure and support of a treatment centre while preparing residents to enter mainstream society. They allow patients to reinforce what was learned during treatment so they can maintain their sobriety when they leave. 

Faith-based Treatment

Faith-based treatments offer a spiritual approach to addiction recovery. They provide treatment strategies that revolve and faith and guidance from a higher power. 

Support Groups

Support groups allow recovering addicts to meet and interact with like-minded people on their journey to sobriety. Members share experiences with addiction and encourage each other throughout the process. Support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) use the famous 12-step programs that have helped millions worldwide.

Holistic Therapy

Holistic therapy for addiction focuses on the overall well-being of the individual. These therapies offer a physical, emotional, and spiritual approach to treatment and may include programs like meditation, mindfulness, yoga, art therapy, and acupuncture. 

Tips on Preventing Addiction

Preventing addiction starts by recognizing that the possibility exists. Addiction is non-discriminatory and can affect anyone, and there is no guaranteed way of ensuring you or a loved one doesn’t develop an addiction. However, you can take steps to lower your chances of addiction. Here are some tips on preventing addiction: 

Addiction Education

Learning about what causes substance abuse and addiction increases your chances of staying drug-free. You are more likely to overcome risk factors the more you’re aware of them. Educating people, especially teens, about the dangers of addiction drug abuse and addiction equips them to be better able to respond when they face situations that may tempt them to abuse drugs. Parents, teachers, and role models must provide prevention education to keep young people away from substance abuse. 

Build a Reliable Support Network

Surround yourself with positive people and avoid those who would pressure you into trying substances. Peer pressure is everywhere, so you must be intentional about those you allow to influence you. You should also have a ready excuse to give when people offer you drugs. 

Treat Existing Mental Illness

Mental illness and addiction are strongly linked, so it’s crucial to get professional help for conditions like depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder. Your medical will evaluate your situation and equip you with coping skills to manage the condition without using illicit substances. 

Maintain Proper Work-life Balance

Stressors from your daily activities can make you feel like you’re missing out on something. It is not uncommon to see people turn to substances in an attempt to fill this void. You must strive to maintain a balance between your work and other activities. Find healthier ways to de-stress; know when to take a break and just relax if things get too exhausting. Have fun, spend time with your family, set goals that are sustainable, go on picnics, and try to enjoy life whenever possible. By practising self-care, you keep your mind and body healthy, making it unlikely that you’d ever turn to drugs. 


Addictions ruin lives, and knowing why they happen can help keep you and your loved ones safe. An addiction can be treated, so if you or a loved one is already struggling with a substance use disorder, it’s vital to contact a professional immediately. Your treatment provider will evaluate your case and devise a treatment plan that offers the best chance at lasting recovery. 

Frequently asked questions

Is trauma the root cause of addiction?

There is no single cause of addiction, and traumatic experiences may sometimes be strongly associated with addiction. Trauma unbalances our stress response system and can cause thought patterns and behaviour that may lead to substance abuse.

Is addiction a brain disease?

Addiction is a brain disease because addictive substances affect the brain’s reward circuitry, lowering its ability to feel pleasure and motivation. These substances also weaken brain regions responsible for decision-making and impulse control, making relapses likely.

What are the levels of addiction?

The levels or stages of addiction are:
- Initial use/Experimentation: The voluntary use of the drug in a social situation or to cope with a problem
- Regular use: The use of the substance on a recurring improper basis
- Problematic use/Abuse: Substance use begins to take a negative toll that puts the user and others around them at risk
- Dependence: The individual becomes dependent and needs the drug to function
- Addiction: Compulsive use of the drug despite obvious harmful consequences
- Relapse: The individual tries to quit, often without help, only to lose control and return to drug use

How do you rewire your brain from addiction?

You can rewire your brain from addiction by sticking to your treatment routine and adopting a healthy lifestyle. Eat well, exercise, and get enough rest. How long it will take your brain to rewire depends on your addiction’s severity and how long you were addicted.

How do you know if you’re addicted to something?

You know you are addicted to something if you cannot stop using a substance or engaging in addictive behaviour despite obvious negative consequences or multiple failed attempts to quit.

How does the cycle of addiction begin? 

The cycle of addiction begins with an initial use or experimentation with a substance. This initial use then becomes regular improper use of abuse. The individual develops tolerance, needing more of the substance to get the same effects. If they keep abusing the drug, they’ll become dependent and need it for normal functioning. Dependence is the last stage before addiction. They may try to quit using the drug and suffer a relapse, starting the cycle again.

Certified Addiction Counsellor

Seth brings many years of professional experience working the front lines of addiction in both the government and privatized sectors.


Dr. Jonathan Siegel earned his doctoral degree in counselling psychology from the University of Toronto in 1986. He is a registered psychologist in private practice and has 30 years of experience conducting both assessments and counselling with a diverse group of individuals presenting with a broad range of psychological adjustment difficulties, such as depression, anxiety, and addictions.

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