What Causes Addiction?

Rabbi Azriel Hauptman

The question of what causes addiction is one that has been the focus of scientific research for many years, and the answer is somewhat confusing. Is it a predisposition that one is born with, a result of peer pressure, or an attempt to soothe negative emotions? I am sure that you would not be surprised to hear that it is all of the above and then some. In this article, we will briefly present some of the factors that often contribute to the development of an addiction.

Before we begin, let us define an addiction. We all have weaknesses that compel to us to engage in behaviors that are not conducive to our well-being. We might eat a little too much, avoid exercise, ingest too much caffeine, etc. Very few of us have the self-control to conduct our lives in a perfectly healthy manner. What then makes an addiction fundamentally different? In a nutshell, addiction is a condition where the person engages in a behavior or uses a substance that offers a pleasurable effect and will repeatedly occupy himself or herself in this behavior despite detrimental consequences. In other words, when one is willing to risk his job, marriage, money, or even his life in order to follow an urge, then we call this an addiction.

Now we can discuss the elements that can lead to an addiction. Let us begin with the brain theory. This theory states that individuals who develop addictions were born with a predisposition for addiction based on how their brain reacts to pleasure. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps us feel pleasure and fulfillment in our lives. If the dopamine receptors are faulty, then major amounts of dopamine are required in order to feel “normal”. Therefore, one can become drawn to those substances or behaviors that produce a dopamine flood in the brain. According to this theory, a person’s genetics are at the heart of developing an addiction. 

Another theory of addiction states that early experiences in one’s life can create emotional pain. This includes childhood abuse, neglect, bullying, etc. The emotional pain that one must live with can compel someone to seek out a method to numb the pain. There are non-harmful ways of accomplishing this, and that is what psychotherapy and psychiatry are all about. But if one searches for his or her own way of dealing with it, the result might be the discovery of an addictive behavior that can offer an experience that will, at least temporarily, offer a sense of relief.

Another theory states that addictions are environmental. Influences from one’s peers and surroundings can make it seem that addictive substances are “cool”. Once a young person, such as an adolescent or young adult, is exposed to an addictive substance, there is a chance that an addiction will develop even if there is no history of trauma or mental illness.

Ultimately, these are all valid factors that play a role in the development of an addiction. This leads to a more controversial theory, and that is the gateway theory of addiction. This theory states that if someone engages in less dangerous substances, such as cannabis, that will be a gateway for eventually graduating to dangerous and life-threatening drugs. The drawback of this theory is that when one does engage in cannabis use, this usually involves hanging out with the wrong crowd, interacting with drug dealers, defying parental directives, etc. Therefore, it might be the descent into the “underworld” that is leading to the gateway effect and not the cannabis use by itself.

Therefore, if one does have a child or friend that is beginning to use addictive substances, it is not enough simply to take away that substance and close up the so-called gateway. A more holistic approach is required to determine what caused this person to turn to drugs for comfort. Is there emotional pain? Does this individual need healthier and more fulfilling friendships? Are the parents dealing with their child properly? And the list goes on.

In conclusion, addiction is a complicated mixture of many factors and any intervention would have to look at the whole person. Hashem created us with the ability to overcome whatever challenges He sends our way. Overcoming addiction can be the most difficult task that a person would need to face, but with the right help it can be done.

Share this article: