what are the causes of addiction

Discover the complex and varied causes behind addictive behaviour, from psychological factors to environmental triggers, and learn how habits can escalate into addiction.

In association with our partner psychologists, Psych Health.

The causes of addiction are varied and complex and will differ from person to person. As such, we don’t always know the contributing factors behind it. In recent years, however, experts have made great progress in developing our understanding of the underlying causes, including the impact of early childhood experiences like financial struggles, an unstable home life, and traumatic events

By recognising these vulnerabilities, we can all work towards creating a more supportive and empathetic society that prioritises mental health and wellness for all. Studies suggest that even with a genetic predisposition to addiction, you may never develop one if you have a loving support network and no early-life trauma. And even if you have a low susceptibility, you can still develop an addiction.

what are the psychological causes of addiction?

There are a few psychological factors that can cause addiction. For instance, if you have been diagnosed with a mental health disorder such as anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or had a traumatic childhood experience, you may be more at risk.

Personality traits like impulsivity and sensation-seeking are also linked explicitly with substance use disorder and gambling addiction.

what causes addiction in the brain?

Addictive behaviour occurs when dopamine develops in our brains, which can offer a rush of pleasure. Of course, the pleasure might be fleeting – putting a coin into a slot machine takes seconds, for example. But still, unpredictable rewards (like pay-outs) can feel addictive and maintain this gambling behaviour, presenting itself as a feeling of hope. You may hold onto hope that the outcome will be a win to alleviate financial pressures, make life better, or to be able to provide security for loved ones.

The more you engage in the rush, the more tolerant you become to dopamine; this is why we seek out more ways to feel the 'dopamine hit'. The behaviour then escalates because eventually our brain rewires to focus on pursuing and attaining the desired outcome.

It’s such a powerful driving force that, unintentionally, your brain might make irrational decisions seem rational. As a result, we experience intense distress due to the absence of dopamine.

how can habits lead to addiction?

Day-to-day activities or behaviours, if not managed safely, can trigger addiction. For example, many people enjoy a glass of wine after a stressful day at work. A common coping mechanism like this could develop into an addictive behaviour you rely upon, with more glasses needed to unwind over time.
Many addictions can also stem from socially acceptable behaviours, like betting on a football match with friends until you develop an uncontrollable urge to gamble regularly as a source of constant entertainment.

what environmental factors contribute to addiction?

We also know that nature versus nurture is significant. For example, traumatic childhood experiences can often lead to addiction and significantly impact physical and mental health. These negative experiences may include the absence of a caregiver's love. Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon to hear of childhood where your practical needs are met, but a lack of affection leads to low self-esteem and emotional pain.

Some other environmental factors like grief or military family life have also been associated as a cause for addiction. With easy internet access, there are many addictive routes to alleviate emotional difficulties. Still, they won't help to fix the underlying wound.

Now that you understand a little more about the causes of addiction, reading 'how to get help for an addiction’ or 'how to support a loved one’ may be helpful.

further reading 

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what is addiction?

Our recent research has revealed that 1 in 7 accountants believe they know at least one person through work who has an addiction. To help you understand addiction better, discover the different types and recognise the signs of addiction, read this guide below.


habit vs addiction: what’s the difference?

Are your daily routines just habits or something more concerning? Can a habit turn into an addiction, and how can you tell the difference? With 1 in 10 accountants sharing with us that their drinking habits have negatively impacted their life, we explore the distinction between a habit and an addiction...


how to support a loved one suffering from addiction

Being part of someone’s support network is incredibly brave and thoughtful, but we understand this can have challenging effects on your own health. We’re here to help you navigate your emotions and recognise that looking after yourself is just as important as helping someone you care about.


understanding addiction: how to overcome it

Addiction is a difficult journey, but it's not impossible to overcome. In this article, we'll explore where to find help and the steps you can take to recover from addiction.

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