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• August 11, 2023

How Addictions Develop


Substance addictions and behavioral addictions are two distinct but interrelated categories of addictive diseases that can develop out of various underlying factors. Substance addictions involve the repeated use of drugs or substances, such as alcohol, nicotine, opioids, or cocaine, leading to physical and psychological dependence. On the other hand, behavioral addictions revolve around compulsive engagement in certain activities or behaviors, like gambling, gaming, internet use, shopping, or even exercise. 

In both cases, the disease of addiction develops through a combination of genetic factors and environmental influences. Continued exposure to addictive substances or behaviors can lead to changes in the brain’s reward circuitry, making it increasingly difficult for individuals to control their impulses and cravings.

In this article, we explore how both types of addiction can develop.

Biological Factors

In both substance and behavioral addictions, genetics can play a significant role. Certain individuals may possess genetic predispositions that make them more susceptible to addiction. Additionally, changes in brain chemistry and neural pathways due to prolonged substance use or excessive engagement in certain behaviors can create a heightened craving for the substance or behavior.

Environmental Influences

The environment in which a person grows up or lives can greatly contribute to their behavior as adults, including the development of addiction. For example, exposure to substance use within the family or peer groups can influence one’s attitude towards substances. Similarly, easy access to certain behaviors like online gambling or gaming can lead to behavioral addictions in susceptible individuals.

Psychological Factors

Underlying psychological conditions can be linked to the development of addictions. People with diagnosed conditions like depression, anxiety, or trauma may turn to substances or behaviors as a coping mechanism to escape from emotional pain or distress. The temporary relief experienced only helps reinforce the addiction cycle.

Social Reinforcement

In social settings, certain addictive behaviors can be brought out of a person, even if they have been under control for some time. Substance use or certain behaviors may be positively reinforced by peers, creating a sense of acceptance or belonging. Such reinforcement can lead the individual to increased engagement and the escalation of addictive behaviors over time.

Neurological Reward System 

Both substance and behavioral addictions trigger the brain’s reward system, releasing neurotransmitters like dopamine that create pleasurable sensations. The brain then associates the substance or behavior with pleasure, leading to a desire for more and eventually addiction. Essentially, addiction retrains the brain’s reward system and causes the person to become solely motivated by the acquisition of more of the substance or performing more of the behavior.

Stress and Coping Mechanisms 

Life stressors, such as work pressure, relationship issues, or financial difficulties, can push individuals towards addiction. As a person experiences uncomfortable situations and whenever stress begins to increase, the individual will attempt to alleviate the stress by means of their addiction. Substance or behavioral use may provide temporary relief from stress, leading to a habit-forming cycle as individuals rely on these coping mechanisms.


In many cases, individuals who suffer from untreated mental health issues or other underlying conditions may try to self-medicate to alleviate their symptoms. Unfortunately, this can lead to a dangerous cycle, worsening both the mental health condition and the addiction. Self-medication without proper direction from a doctor can cause the symptoms to worsen, and it can increase the likelihood of the person overdosing or becoming sick because of mismanagement of their medication.

Understanding the Facts is the First Step

Both substance and behavioral addictions can develop due to a complex interplay of biological, environmental, psychological, and social factors. Understanding the root causes of addiction is crucial for prevention, early intervention, and effective treatment. By addressing the causes and providing comprehensive support, individuals struggling with behavioral or substance addictions can have a better chance of recovery and leading fulfilling lives.

At Valley Forge Medical Center, we are here to help you develop effective prevention and treatment strategies. Contact us today.

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