Causes of addiction and how to prevent it

We can become addicted to such substances as alcohol, cannabis, cigarettes or medication. But there are also behavioural addictions such as addictions to gaming or shopping. What causes addiction? And, more importantly: how do you protect yourself? Tips for preventing addiction.

22.03.2023 Daniela Schori 2 minutes

Addiction means being dependent on a substance or a behaviour. The need becomes stronger and stronger and dominates the life of the person affected more and more. Addiction has nothing to do with letting yourself go or a lack of discipline. It’s a serious – but treatable – illness. What can cause it?

Causes of addiction

Why do people become addicted to drugs? What causes alcohol dependency? Or why is cannabis addictive? What causes gambling addictions? And is social media addictive? Addictions are as varied as their causes: the dependency starts in the brain.

What causes addiction?

The addictive substance triggers complex chemical reactions in the brain that generate feelings of happiness. A lot of dopamine is released. In addition to a feeling of reward, this happiness hormone also provides a learning signal in the brain. With regular consumption, the brain develops an expectation that more will keep coming. This urge must be satisfied again and again. This mechanism can lead to dependency. Even a sound like opening a bottle can trigger cravings.

What encourages addiction?

There are factors that predispose someone to developing an addiction. The more pronounced and numerous these are, the greater the risk.

  • Genetics: there are certain gene variants that make some people more susceptible to addictions. More important, however, are epigenetic changes, which are also inherited. This epigenetic information affects brain metabolism, for example, and leads to more addictive behaviour
  • Family: a difficult family situation is a risk factor – conflicts, stress, violence and abuse in childhood and adolescence, a lack of stable attachment and parental addiction.
  • Personality: impulse control and social and emotional skills are important protective factors for health. If these are lacking, the person is more prone to addictive behaviour.
  • Age: the earlier and more regularly someone consumes addictive substances, the greater the risk of dependence. The adolescent body is more sensitive to the substances. And the brain learns certain reaction patterns, i.e. that cigarettes are relaxing or beer makes you more confident.
  • Addictive substance: whether and how quickly you become physically or psychologically dependent depends heavily on the addictive substance, i.e. how it works and how often and intensively it is consumed.
  • Environment: problems in your social environment, at school or at work make you more vulnerable to addiction. As do a lack of prospects and lack of integration or loneliness.
  • Culture: what we consume depends on our cultural milieu and social norms. It’s about values, lifestyle and identification.

Portrait: a former addict explains

Multiple factors cause addiction. In this video, Michel Sutter explains how physical and mental abuse shaped his childhood. He was addicted to drugs and alcohol for 20 years. Now an addiction coach, he explains what factors can lead to someone becoming an addict. These include difficult family relationships.

When does addiction start?

Addiction is diagnosed if at least three of the following criteria applied in the past twelve months:

  • Can no longer do without the addictive substance or behaviour
  • Loss of control over the amount of consumption
  • Continued consumption, although negative consequences have already occurred
  • Withdrawal symptoms when abstaining from the addictive substance or behaviour
  • Evidence of tolerance: Increasing amounts are required to produce the original effect
  • Neglecting duties, interests and social life

How quickly you become addicted to something also depends on the frequency and amount of consumption and the addictive substance itself. A few joints or glasses of wine won’t cause addiction, but dependence on heroin can develop after just a few uses. Why does heroin become addictive so quickly? The opioid binds to various receptors of the brain and releases significant amounts of dopamine extremely quickly. It makes you physically and psychologically dependent within a short time.

What about the use of party drugs on weekends? When does alcohol become an addiction?  Permanent mobile phone use has its effects on us too. How to protect yourself.

Mobile phone addiction: what you need to know

Preventing addiction – what makes us stronger?

In many cases, addiction arises from a feeling of being overwhelmed or emptiness. For instance, changed living circumstances can be a trigger. We then satisfy a mental need with the addictive substance – a need to experience positive feelings.

Inner equilibrium and harmony can help us to overcome challenges and crises. Part of this is dealing with stress in a healthy way, but also dealing with your own emotions. The foundations for this are laid in childhood. But we’re constantly developing these skills.

Eight tips for inner strength

  1. Reduce stress. Try to relax with sports, mindfulness exercises, spending time in nature, music – what activity fulfils you? Try something new. And take stock of your work-life balance regularly.
  2. Identify your feelings and find out how to deal with them healthily. Anyone suppressing difficult emotions will be forced to look for another outlet. Here’s how to improve your emotional competence.
  3. Get rid of old baggage. Forgiving yourself and others makes us emotionally and physically strong. Learn how to forgive.
  4. Leave your comfort zone regularly. Doing so helps boost confidence in our own skills and helps us handle stressful situations.
  5. Cultivate friendships. Connecting with other people is key to our resilience. That applies to children and adults alike. Closeness and trusting relationships help us to reflect on situations and grow from them.
  6. Don’t compare yourself. Perfection is everywhere on social media. This makes it particularly difficult for young people to develop a realistic self-image. However, a positive self-image and knowledge of your own strengths are important tools in successfully overcoming a crisis.
  7. Consume consciously. Resorting to alcohol shouldn’t become routine – it should be a pleasurable one-off. And avoid substances that can quickly become addictive: not just illegal drugs like cocaine – cigarettes, too.
  8. Be mindful of the role addictive substances play. Don’t consume them if you are in a bad frame of mind. Otherwise, you will need more and more of them to chase away unpleasant feelings.

Do you want to be more relaxed and resilient?

Our health consultation advisors can provide you with useful tips, including healthy ways of dealing with pressure and stress.

Warning signs of addiction

Addiction prevention also means recognising early warning signs. Typical signs are, for example, when a person withdraws more and more, has mood swings, is lacking energy, loses interest.

Remain aware of your own behaviours, too. Be sure to get support from addiction counselling if you lose control of consumption or a certain behaviour, such as an addiction to shopping or computer games.

Addiction Switzerland

The experts from Addiction Switzerland provided the editorial team with advice and input for this article. The independent charitable foundation is the national competence centre for prevention, research and knowledge transfer in the field of addiction.

Read more

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