What causes substance abuse?

what is substance abuse

There is rarely a clear reason why a person begins to misuse substances. Substance abuse is usually the result of a combination of genetic, environmental, and psychological factors.

Understanding what causes substance abuse is crucial to preventing it and helping those who are struggling with addiction.

In this article, we will find out a little more about what substance abuse is and the factors that can cause it.

What is substance abuse?

Substance abuse refers to the harmful use of psychoactive substances such as drugs and alcohol.

Misusing substances like drugs and alcohol can harm an individual’s physical and mental health, relationships, and daily activities. The severity of substance misuse can vary from occasional overconsumption to addiction and can have long-term effects on a person’s overall well-being, relationships, and quality of life.

What types of substances are commonly misused?

Substances that are commonly misused include:

  • Alcohol
  • Prescription drugs (such as opioids, benzodiazepines, and stimulants)
  • Illegal drugs (such as cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and methamphetamine)
  • Tobacco
  • Inhalants (such as solvents and aerosol sprays)

These substances can alter the way the brain functions and misusing them can negatively impact the user’s behaviour, thoughts, mood, and perception.

What causes substance abuse?

Substance misuse can affect individuals of all ages, races, ethnicities, and socioeconomic backgrounds. No one is immune to substance misuse.

People may begin misusing substances for a variety of different reasons. Many people begin misusing them during difficult times of their lives to take their minds off things, numb their pain, or as a source of escapism. For others, substance misuse starts as a recreational activity, drinking or taking drugs may be something they experiment with to have fun with friends, but it later turns into a harmful habit.

There is not usually one single cause of substance abuse but several different factors at play. Let’s find out a bit more about what these could be.


Studies have shown that there is a strong hereditary component to substance abuse, and individuals with a family history of addiction are more likely to develop substance abuse problems themselves.

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), “at least half a person’s susceptibility to drug addiction can be linked to genetic factors.”

Genetic factors that may contribute to substance abuse include brain chemistry, changes in the reward centres of the brain, and an increased likelihood of developing impulsivity and risk-taking behaviour.

Genetic predisposition to addiction does not mean that a person is fated to misuse substances, but it could be one of many different factors that influences a person’s decision to do so.

Environmental factors

Environmental factors also influence a person’s risk of development of substance abuse. Some environmental factors that can play a part include:

Early exposure or use – People who are exposed to substance misuse at an early age are at an increased risk of misusing substances later in life. This is because early exposure can normalise substance use, making it seem like a socially acceptable behaviour. Early exposure can also affect the development of the brain and increase the risk of addiction and other negative consequences caused by substance misuse.

Peer pressure – People who are exposed to friends or peers who misuse substances may be more likely to become curious about experimenting with substances or feel pressured into doing so to fit in. This may be especially true for teenagers who are at an age where they are trying to establish their identities and are more susceptible to peer pressure. Substance misuse can also be seen as a bonding activity among peers, further increasing the pressure to continue using.

Ease of access to substances – Another factor that can have an influence on an individual’s likelihood to misuse substances is the ease of availability of drugs and alcohol. Drugs and alcohol are more readily accessible in some communities, which can increase the likelihood of individuals becoming involved in substance abuse, as they may not perceive it as a problem or may not understand the risks associated with it.

Lack of support system – Lack of family involvement can increase an individual’s vulnerability to substance misuse. A supportive family or network can provide emotional, financial, and practical support, and can help an individual feel connected and valued. Without support from loved ones, individuals may feel isolated, hopeless, or overwhelmed, which can lead to substance misuse as a means of coping with difficult emotions or life circumstances.

Psychological factors

Psychological factors can also play a key part in the development of substance abuse.

Mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, and PTSD are common among individuals with substance abuse problems. Substance abuse may be used as a coping mechanism for those who are struggling with mental health issues.

People who experience anxiety, depression, trauma, or other emotional distress in their lifetime may be more likely to experiment with substance misuse to help them to cope with difficult feelings or numb emotional pain.

Individuals with low self-esteem, who have difficulty managing stress, or who have trouble regulating their emotions may also be more likely to develop substance abuse problems.

Substance abuse is not a choice, it is a complex problem that requires a holistic approach to prevention and treatment. The causes of the problem should be assessed before an effective treatment plan can be put in place.

Substance abuse can have devastating effects on individuals, families, and communities, and it is crucial to understand what causes substance abuse to develop effective prevention and treatment strategies.