Origins of Addiction: Risk Factors for Substance Use Disorders

Individuals may be motivated to misuse drugs or alcohol for a variety of reasons including to improve their mood, numb negative emotions, boost their performance, “fit in” socially and satisfy their curiosity. However, not everyone who misuses drugs or alcohol develops an addiction. Many factors influence the risk of struggling with substance abuse, including genetics, childhood experiences, and mental health. 


Substance use disorders (SUDs) are chronic conditions characterized by compulsive drug or alcohol use despite negative consequences and disruptions to normal living. At their most severe, SUDs are referred to as addictions. 

Although researchers haven’t found exactly what causes addiction, there are circumstances that increase one’s risk of developing the condition. These risk factors include:

  • Genetics: A person’s genetic makeup accounts for about half their risk of developing an addiction. Genes determine how a person’s brain and body process and respond to drugs and alcohol. Certain substances can trigger dopamine centers within the brain that can create a pleasurable effect. When a person isn’t using, their brain may generate a response that makes them feel stressed or anxious. These cycles of reward and distress may vary in intensity depending on a person’s genetic makeup. With continued use, an individual may need more of the substance to feel the pleasurable effects. Additionally, any enjoyment they experienced from daily living may seem dull compared to the “high” of their chosen substance. 
  • Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs): Any distressing, traumatic events that occur during one’s early years can be characterized as adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). ACEs may involve emotional, physical, or sexual abuse, in addition to other unfavorable circumstances such as witnessing violence between parents or experiencing the death of a loved one. ACEs significantly increase the risk of developing a struggle with drugs or alcohol as an older adult. They have also been linked to youth alcohol use and earlier illicit drug use. Other environmental factors, such as family, economic, and social backgrounds can also influence addiction risk. 
  • Mental health conditions: Addiction frequently co-occurs with mental health conditions, as individuals may use drugs or alcohol to cope with the symptoms of psychological disorders. In fact, substance abuse and mood disorders, which include depression and bipolar disorder, occur together more often than any other mental illness. About 35% of individuals with depression also have a SUD, while 56% of individuals with bipolar disorder have a SUD as well. Addiction also commonly co-occurs with anxiety disorders, including generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Individuals with anxiety disorders are two to three times more likely to struggle with a SUD.


At Wasatch Crest, our team of caring clinicians and staff, many of whom are in long-term recovery themselves, welcome clients without judgment. We work to understand the circumstances driving each client’s addiction and provide personalized care to facilitate their healing. Through compassionate, human-centric, and evidence-based treatment, we help individuals create new stories in recovery. Reach out to learn more about our addiction treatment programs in Heber City, UT. 

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