Psychological and social processes in the development of drug addiction

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23 November 2015

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Psychological and social processes in the development of drug addiction


       Drug addiction can be defined as a compulsive need to use drugs in order to function normally. It can also be defined as primary, chronic, neurobiological disease with genetic, psychosocial and environmental factors influencing its development and manifestations. It is characterized by behaviors that include one of the following: impaired control over the drug use, compulsive use, continued use despite the harm it does on the individual and its craving.

       When an individual persists in the use of alcohol or other drugs despite the problems related to use of the substance, substance dependence may be diagnosed. Repetitive use may result in tolerance to the effect of the drug and withdraw symptoms when use is reduced or stopped.

       Some of the most important things to know about addiction are that it is fundamentally about compulsive behavior and that such habits originate outside consciousness; from the unconscious mind. It is also important to know that addiction could be heritable meaning that family background and genetics play a big role. Also, people with additions often have psychiatric disorders and that it is characterized by frequent relapse (one should not expect to overcome addiction on the first try.) Another important thing to note is that different psychotherapy all produces similar results (Cohen, 1985, p.98)..

       Drugs that cause addiction include both legal and illegal drugs as well as prescription or over the counter drugs. Addictive drugs also include a large number of substrates that are currently considered to have no medical value and are not available over the counter or by prescription. Several theories of drug addiction exist, some of the main ones being genetic predisposition, the self-medication theory, and factors involved with social/economic development. It has long been established that genetic or biological factors along with social and psychological factors are the main contributors of addiction (Bier, 1962, 74).

Biological development of drug addiction

Substance abuse and genetics

       Genetics is one factor in addiction. The development of an addiction is influenced by multiple biological, familial psychological and social cultural factors. In our societies every one has access to drugs and alcohol, some people use them and other people become addicted. However, not all people who use substances will become addicted dependent or even use them regularly. Similar upbringing, environmental factors rate of abuse for a drug and even peer influence still do not mean that people will struggle with drug addiction.

       Genetics account up to around half of the reasons for a person becoming addicted. There ire no specific genes for addiction though there are a number of biological and genetic factors that make someone more or less vulnerable to becoming an addict. Genetics are thought to contribute to the development of heavy substance abuse although environmental and social factors are necessary to lead someone into that problem (Barnard, 2007, p.38).

       There are no genes or a set of genes that have been identified to directly cause a person to become a drug abuser or engage in drug taking activities. Genes are important in the control of behavior. If a gene is absent, a protein that controls the development or function of a psychological system may not be produced. In certain cases, the impact may be obvious, such as in case of mental retardation or related diseases. In other cases, the impact of genes on behavior may be less obvious but just as important in a person’s development. This is the case when genetic factors produce a tendency or predisposition to respond in a certain manner. Such is believed to be the influence of genes on a number of behavioral traits and disorders, including drugs and alcoholism dependence. Thus, genes are not the sole determinant of alcoholism or substance absence but their presence or absence may increase the likelihood that a person will become alcohol or drug dependent.

Genetic predisposition and vulnerability

       Genetic predisposition is considered important n development of drug and substance abuse. It is thought that an individual whose parent or grandparent has/had the problem of addiction are more vulnerable to addiction. This does not directly mean that people born in families where substance abuse has been a problem will have the problem but they are more susceptible to developing an addiction. It is also very difficult for them to quit once they get addicted or have more severe withdrawal symptoms.

       Vulnerability to substance abuse is also influenced by demographic, environmental, behavioral and personality factors. Poverty, previous sexual abuse, rebelliousness, delinquency, incarceration and peer drug use are also issues that contribute to a person’s vulnerability without which genes have little or no influence on the person whose family has the history of addiction.

Susceptibility to addiction

       A person does not inherit a substance abuse but inherit susceptibility to it. Those people who are susceptible to addiction may never develop that problem unless they are exposed to the predisposing factors seen above. Note that a person who does not have a genetic factor may develop the problem and pass it on to his future generation. Genetics may have a place in the transition from recreational drugs taking behavior to established pattern of drug abuse. These genetic factors may include personality traits, mental health, psychological reactions to a drug such as the case of severity of hangovers and risk taking behavior.

       Genetics may play a role in determining what kind of a drug a person is likely to abuse and which ione he/she cannot although this is also influence by the peer and environmental factors.

Parental alcoholism

       Parental alcoholism is known to contribute significantly to the risk of the child developing the same condition. This may occur for genetic reasons though it would also be affected by factors such as personality traits, exposure to alcohol and alcoholism lifestyle, peer pressure and mental health (Andrews, 1961, p.25).

       For male children, the risk is up to eight times higher than that of female children of alcoholics. Behavior is considered the biggest factor in this development as disinhibiting and thrill-seeking traits are more in boys than in girls.

       Alcoholism however, is not simply caused by genetics and no one should take that as an excuse for taking it and developing addiction. Family does not play a big role in influencing a person’s decision to use or not to use alcohol or other substances.

       Adopted children have twice the risk if their biological parents were drug abusers. This suggests that for parents who aim to adopt children should research on the heath history of the child incase the child is susceptible so as to take the necessary measures. This will also help the parent in deciding the type of environment to raise the adopted child.

       Biological development could also be argued to affect the brain causing long term changes in the anatomy and physiology of the brain’s neurons. Alcohol, methamphetamine, and MDMA (ecstasy) have been shown to be neurotoxic in animal studies. Unlike other cells in the body, neurons in many parts of the brain do not have the capacity to regenerate although recent studies have shown that the adult human brain can generate new neurons in the hippocampus, a part of brain responsible for memory and learning. Alcohol kills neurons in a part of brain that help create new memories (hippocampus and mammillary bodies). If those memories die, the capacity for learning decreases. Methamphetamine is toxic to dopamine containing neurons. MDMA has been shown to damage axon terminals of neurons that produce another neurotransmitter called serotonin. In addition to neurotoxic effects, drugs can significantly alter the activity of the brain. These events could be considered as a biological development of addiction since one the brain cells have been damaged, the person cannot function normally without their presence (Conrad, Martin, & Änggård, 1977, p.49).

Psychological processes in the development of drug addiction

       Drug addiction is behavioral and carries no connotations regarding the drugs potential adverse effects, the social acceptability of drug usage or physiological consequences of chronic drug administration. Although drug addiction is frequently has adverse medical consequences, it is usually associated with strong social disapproval.

       Initial drug use can be motivated by a number of factors such as curiosity about the effects of the drug, peer pressure or psychodynamic processes can all provide sufficient motivation for experimental or circumstantial drug use. The development of addiction is thought to involve a simultaneous process of increased focus on and engagement in a particular behavior and the attenuation or shutting down of other behavior. For example, under certain experimental circumstances such as social deprivation and boredom, animals allowed unlimited to self administer certain psychoactive drugs will show such a strong preference that they will forgo food, sleep and sex for continued access.

59499524447500Drug Use

109347025146000899795825500004805045831850031743658318500 Casual drug intensive drug use compulsive drug use Addiction

14560558191500Circumstantial motivational strength motivational toxicity.

Drug use

       The above diagram represents a continuum of drug use illustrating the progression from casual drug use to addiction. Motivational strength is the determining factor in categorizing drug use. Motivational toxicity has not been considered as a defining characteristic though it may be the most distinguishing feature.

       Substance abuse is referred to as psychological dependence by the psychiatrists who are considered as a form of a disease. Another lesser known situation is the pseudo-addiction. A patient with this situation will exhibit drug seeking behavior reminiscent of psychological addiction, but they have a genuine pain or other symptoms that have been undertreated.

       Normally, psychological dependency leads to psychological withdrawal symptoms such as craving, irritability, insomnia, depression, anorexia and many others. Addiction in theory can be derived in any rewarding behavior and is believed to be strongly associated with the dopaminergic system of the brains reward system as in the case of cocaine and amphetamines. Some claim that it is a habitual means to avoid undesired activities but typically it is only so to a clinical level in individuals who have emotional, social or psychological dysfunctions replacing normal positive stimuli not otherwise attained.

       If a person is physically dependent but not psychologically dependent can have their dose slowly dropped until they are no longer physical dependent. However, if a person is psychologically dependent, there is always the risk of relapse in abuser and subsequent physical dependence. Psychological dependence is not only limited to substances; even activities and behavioral pattern can be considered addictions if they become uncontrollable for example gambling, internet addiction, sexual addiction/pornography addiction, overreacting, self-injury, compulsive buying or work addiction.

       Studies have examined factors which moderate substance abuse or dependence. For example there is a significant relationship between psycho-behavioral risk factors such as tolerance to deviance, rebelliousness, achievement, perceived drug risk, familism, family church attendance and other factors and substance abuse and dependence. That relationship is moderated by familism which means the strength of the relationship is increased or decreased based on the level of familism present in a given individual.

       There are several factors that are thought to mediate between psycho-behavior and substance abuse. The first factor is risk taking behavior and parental involvement. Studies have shown that children who spend more time with their parents are not likely to get involved with drugs unlike children who get to learn most of the things in life from their friends. Generally people who like taking risks in life are more susceptible in life since they tend to experiment once they become familiar with the substance.

       Another example of mediating variable is depression. Depression has been seen to mediate between childhood maltreatment and subsequent substance abuse in adulthood. In other words, childhood physical abuse is associated with increased drug and alcohol in young adulthood. More specifically, depression helps to explain how childhood abuse is related to subsequent drug abuse in young adulthood. A third example of a mediating variable is an increase in externalizing symptoms. In other words, stressful life events are associated with externalizing symptoms such as aggression or hostility which can lead to peer alienation or acceptance by socially defiant peers, which could lead to increased drug use (Gray, 1999, p.75).


Addiction severity index

       Some medical systems including those of at least fifteen states of the United States refer to an Addiction Severity Index to assess the severity of problems related to substance use. The index assesses the problem in six areas: medical, employment/support, alcohol and other drug use, legal, family/social and psychiatric.


       Early treatment of acute withdrawal often includes medical detoxification which can include doses of anxiolytics or narcotics to reduce the symptoms of withdrawal. An experimental drug, ibogaine is also proposed to treat withdrawal symptoms and craving.

       Neural feedback therapy has shown statistically significant improvement in numerous researches conducted on alcoholics as well as mixed substance abuse population. In chronic opiate addiction, a surrogate drug such as methadone is sometimes offered as a form of opiate replacement therapy. However, treatment approaches universal focus of an individual’s ultimate choice to pursue an alternate course of action (Ausubel, 1958, p.76).

       Disorders such as post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression. This is seen as a form of psychological development of addiction to drugs.

       Drugs such as stimulants cause psychical addiction which could be moderate to severe and withdrawal is purely psychological and psychosomatic. Others such as amphetamine and methamphetamine, cocaine, caffeine, nicotine, sedatives and hypnotics also cause psychical addiction which could be mild to severe and physiological addiction; abrupt withdrawal could be fatal.

       Some individuals self-medicate themselves with drugs such as alcohol and other drugs to avoid their intolerable states of their minds such as stress which increase the craving for drugs and relapses. Research as shown that people who survive disasters are prone to stress-related

       Social development and adjustment factors also play a major role in drug abuse and addiction. An assumption of the developmental perspective is that the course of one’s life is a process in which life circumstances change, milestones are met or missed and new social roles are created while old ones are abandoned. These events and roles happen at some given stages of life although it also depends with the environment in which an individual is brought up in.

       Studies of the social factors involved in drug use have mostly focused on either adolescents or young adults but a significant number of cocaine users may not initiate until they are at their middle adulthood. The majority of people enter into adult social roles on schedule. However some people enter into these roles earlier or latter that the same age peers. The developmental perspective predicts that this will lead to less than satisfactory adjustment and possibly negative consequences including drug and alcohol dependence.

       Those who use alcohol and recreational drug at an early age are at a greater risk to developing addiction. The younger a person is when they experiment with drugs the more likely they are to become addicts latter on. These experimentations could be brought about by social functions and festivals in our societies especially. When the parents use alcohol and other drugs in such occasions it may be hard to control the children especially at adolescent stage (Bethesda, 2006, p.57).

       Those who experience childhood trauma as well as those growing up in an environment where alcohol and other drug abuse is considered normal behavior are at even higher risk of developing addiction both of which are more or less social. For instance childhood trauma could result from tribal wars due to cultural differences in our societies where a child may be sexually and physically abused.

       Some people just become victims of social classes and poverty where parents make illicit brews to sell them for a living. In this situation, the child grows up in that environment where brewing, selling and drinking the brews is the order of the day. Some of the parents who sell the drugs especially in Africa use the drugs on their children as sedatives as their do their work. In this situation the child grows up operating under the influence of drugs. This child has a very high risk of developing addiction latter on.

       It is also believed that is a person grew up in the environment where his/her self esteem is suppressed are also at a risk of developing addiction. Also those people who find it difficult to manage antisocial behavior tend to ‘hind’ in drugs which may eventually lead to addiction for example gays. Poor parenting where children are exposed to social media at an early age could also be a motivating social factor to use drugs. Children watch movies which suggest that the only way to operate normally is under the influence of drugs. Such a child is likely to experiment. As much as poverty may contribute to the problem of drug use and eventually addiction, availability of money to buy the drugs may also contribute a lot. When a person is especially at an adolescent stage is exposed to the drugs may be by peers, availability of money will be the next factor. Other social factors that may lead to drugs and eventually addiction include: feeling of insecurity in relationships, attention seekers, those who find delayed gratification and difficult impulsiveness (Washington, 1980, p.39).

Addiction as a learned behavior

       It is suggested that people may fall into addiction because of learned behavior. This would explain why those who grow up around substance abusers are more likely to become addicts themselves. Learning theory is based on the idea people don’t have to experience every behavior in order to decide whether to adopt it. If it is observed to bring reward and satisfaction to another person, it can be enough to convince another person to copy it. According to this theory, the answer to addiction is to unlearn the maladaptive behavior.

       Studies have shown that the addictive power of a drug has been exaggerated and that interest in drugs diminishes in both laboratory rats and people when alternative rein forcers of an enriched environment are offered to the subject. Rather than addiction, poverty and crimes being inevitable consequences of drugs; drugs are more likely to be a consequence of poverty and crime.

       Acute or recreational use of most psychoactive drugs causes the release and prolonged action of dopamine and serotonin within the reward circuit.

       In conclusion, drug and substance abuse is more of ones choice than the motivating factors that are involved. No one should blame the biology (genes) and other factor s such as life events and the society for his/her involvement with drugs. Everyone should be responsible of choices they make in life considering the damage such that is posed by addiction both socially and economically (Horgan, 2001, p.76).


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