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Common Reasons Why People Use Drugs

By August 6, 2018 May 2nd, 2019 No Comments
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People begin using drugs for a variety of reasons.

Below, we discuss some of the most common. These include environmental and genetic factors, mental health-related reasons, experimentation and functional or prescribed use. These reasons often combine and overlap.

Reasons Why People Become Addicted to Drugs

While many people begin using drugs for one or more of these reasons, only some will develop drug abuse problems. IFL Science state, “what determines whether or not drug use escalates into addiction, and the prognosis once it has, is less to do with the power of the drug and more to do with the social, personal and economic circumstances of the user.”

Environmental and genetic factors can make a person more likely to use drugs. They can also make a person more likely to develop a dependency. As explained by Psychology Today, “Certain people are at risk for substance abuse and for developing addiction disorders. Their vulnerability might originate from a variety of factors, including their genetic endowment, family background, psychological factors, and social norms.” All of these factors function differently for different people, and conclusions cannot be necessarily be made as a result of any one condition. Psychology Today also note that “Most people at risk for drug abuse do not become addicted.”

These are only a selection of the reasons a person may begin using drugs. As pointed out by Project Know, “There are countless other factors” that may cause a person to use drugs. As they also note, “Once a person is addicted to drugs, he or she generally needs professional help and support to overcome their addiction.” This professional help and support should take a holistic approach that puts the individual at the centre and helps them to identify the underlying causes of their addiction, its consequences, and methods for overcoming the impulse to use.

Genetic Factors

Research has identified genetics as an influential factor in the likelihood of a person using drugs. Psychology Today state that “studies […] suggest that about half a person’s vulnerability to alcohol problems is inherited.” A person’s genetic disposition may not be exclusively responsible for their decisions with regards to drug use, but they will interact with environmental and circumstantial factors and may make someone more likely to use drugs.

As Psychology Today state, “Individuals’ preferences to engage in one behaviour versus another are shaped by their genetic endowment in interaction with their past experiences.” Project Know also explain that “A family history of drug abuse can also predispose a child to a particular drug,” noting that this is particularly likely if a person’s mother was using the drug during pregnancy.

Drug use can also cause changes in the brain. This means that a person may be more inclined towards using substances if a parent was addicted. As stated: “Addicted individuals assign lower values to delayed rewards than to immediate ones. The excessive preferences for the immediate rewards despite longer-term consequences leads to problems with addiction.”

It is possible that this impulsivity, developed through addiction, is passed on genetically. A person with a family history of drug use is not necessarily more likely to use drugs themselves. When combined with other factors, however, this history can have a significant influence.

Environmental Factors

Environmental factors play a substantial role in influencing a person’s decisions over whether to use drugs. These might include influence from others such as family members or friends, general attitudes to drug use in their community. Another relevant factor is employment. Does the individual have an job, and if so, are they happy in it? As the U.S. organization the National Council On Alcohol and Drug Dependence put it, “A person’s environment includes many different influences, from family and friends to socioeconomic status and quality of life in general.”

If a person’s family members or friends use drugs or look upon drug use uncritically, this is likely to influence the individual’s decisions on whether to use drugs themselves. As Psychology Today state with regards to alcohol use, “Social norms help to define the circumstances in which it is appropriate to drink and how much alcohol should be consumed.” The same is true for drugs more generally. We often think of “peer pressure” as a common reason for a person using drugs, and this is often the case. However, even in the absence of explicit pressure, if people openly discuss and use drugs around a person, this makes us more likely to use themselves.

Early Use

Many people who start using drugs as adolescents begin because of this sort of social influence. However, as Project Know point out, “many teens start using drugs as a form of rebellion.” If a young person wishes to push against established boundaries or provoke a reaction from authority figures in their life, they may use drugs as a method to achieve these aims. This can be a particularly dangerous pattern to establish, as they may not have a full comprehension of associated risks.

Young people may also use drugs as a coping mechanism for the many anxieties of adolescence. This is a common way for people to begin using drugs. Young peoples’ motivations for using drugs are rarely straightforward. They can often be a multifaceted and complex response to various factors in their environment and circumstances. Substances can sometimes appear to be a feasible way of dealing with the confusions, frustrations and anxieties of adolescence.


People who are socially isolated or professionally unhappy may also turn to drugs to deal with their dissatisfaction. Drug abuse issues are more common in communities where educational and professional opportunities are more limited and people have restricted access to services. People who perceive a lack of potential “rewards” are far more likely to use drugs to achieve a sense of satisfaction or escape. As NCADD explain, “There is now extensive research showing that providing alternative rewards to those who formerly lacked them may improve addiction treatment outcomes. That is, environmental conditions can play a major role in treating drug addiction and in preventing relapses.”

Social isolation or a lack of a support network also makes people more likely to use drugs. As Psychology Today state, “Problems in self-regulation specifically attributed to loneliness have manifested in alcohol abuse, drug abuse, eating disorders, and even suicide. Moreover, heavy drug users may avoid or alienate friends or family who are not using. The social control hypothesis suggests that the absence of caring friends and family lead people to neglect themselves and indulge in health-damaging behaviours.” This illustrates that drug use is not an isolated issue, but is related to much broader social and economic issues.

Mental Health-Related Drug Use

Many people use drugs as a way to cope with mental health issues. There is a strong correlation between people who have suffered trauma and people who use drugs as a form of self-medication. As the psychiatrist Edward Khantzian argued, “The self-medication theory of addiction suggests that suffering is at the heart of addictive disorders.” Many addiction experts also argue that people often turn to drugs as a way of containing or repressing unwanted thoughts or emotions. Addiction expert Gabor Mate describes this as taking the “chemical shortcut to avoid these emotions,” stating that, as a result of this behaviour, people often become “trapped” in a cycle of drug dependence and emotional repression.

Childhood Trauma

Childhood trauma is a particularly strong predictor of drug use. People who experience trauma before they have the emotional tools to process it are often affected in adulthood. They may turn to drugs as a way of managing the emotional impact of recurring thoughts or emotions. Many people use drugs to deal with anxiety, anger or depression brought on by trauma. Psychology Today detail the relationship between childhood trauma and drug use:

“research in human studies shows that adverse childhood experiences, such as physical and sexual abuse, neglect, domestic violence, and family dysfunction, are associated with an increased risk for addiction. High emotional stress related to a loss of control over impulses and an inability to delay gratification. Moreover, poverty or the scarcity of resources is stressful and can lead to emotional distress and subsequent drug use.”

Effect on Brain Chemistry

NCADD also explain that prolonged drug use may leave a person in a cycle of drug use. Drugs change the brain’s chemistry over time. They may feel they need to continue using drugs in order to maintain a stable mindset: “As a person continues to abuse drugs, the brain adapts to the dopamine surges by producing less dopamine or reducing the number of dopamine receptors. The user must therefore keep abusing drugs to bring his or her dopamine function back to ‘’normal’ or use more drugs to achieve a dopamine high.” As Khantzian describes, a person can ultimately feel that they require drugs not to escape or achieve happiness, but to feel “normal.” Sustained drug use can also affect the parts of the brain responsible for “decision-making, learning and memory, and behaviour control.” These alterations can make a person more likely to compulsively use drugs.


Often, people will use drugs out of curiosity or experimentation. This is particularly common among younger people seeking new experiences. This is a natural impulse and the experimentation may be relatively harmless for many people. For others, however, it can lead towards more compulsive use. As Project Know describe, “Many people who become addicted to recreational drugs […] start taking drugs on an experimental basis.” Younger people may also be more likely to develop drug abuse problems through experimentation. NCADD point out that, “Because areas in their brains that govern decision making, judgment, and self-control are still developing, adolescents may be especially prone to risk-taking behaviours, including trying drugs of abuse.”

Younger people may also be less prepared to identify when drug use has become problematic. If they do identify a dependency problem, they may be less equipped to seek the necessary help. It is important for younger people who may choose to experiment with drugs to have a strong support network available.


Some people use drugs for specific, functional reasons. In some cases, they will use a drug prescribed by a doctor to deal with a particular issue. However, many legally prescribed drugs are highly addictive, and a person can form a dependence very quickly. Opioids such as Oxycontin, which doctors often prescribe for pain relief, are an example of this. As NCADD write, opioids provide an intoxicating high when injected or taken orally in high doses. Opioids are also powerful anxiety relievers.”

People using addictive drugs to deal with chronic issues are particularly vulnerable to entering an addictive cycle. As Project Know point out, “The majority of doctors who prescribe medication to their patients provide strict guidelines on how each patient should use the drug. However, doctors cannot monitor their patient’s activities once they leave the doctor’s office, so they have no control over whether or not patients follow the directions printed on their prescription bottles.” However, people can become addicted to opioids or other prescription drugs even if they stringently follow the instructions provided.


There are many functional reasons for using drugs aside from medical issues. Athletes seeking to enhance performance are a common example. However, people in more common professions may use drugs for similar purposes. As Project Know describe, “an individual who wants to stay awake for long periods of time due to work obligations may become addicted to a narcotic that makes it possible to function with little or no sleep.”

Anabel Boys et al, in their paper “Understanding Reasons for Drug Use Among Young People: A Functional Perspective,” provide the examples of “vehicle drivers who report using to improve concentration and relieve tiredness” and “people who want to lose weight.” The study found that “about a third or female interviewees had used a stimulant drug to help them to lose weight.” The term “instrumental drug use” is often used to refer to this sort of use which relates to a specific function of a drug. Someone who relies ondrugs to fulfill their professional responsibilities or achieve certain goals are vulnerable to addiction.


People use drugs for a variety of recreational reasons. Boys and colleagues’ study, which took place in the United Kingdom, found that the most common reasons were “to relax,” to “become intoxicated,” to “keep awake at night while socializing,” to “enhance an activity,” and to “alleviate mood.” These categories make clear the overlap between recreational use and other reasons included here, such as environmental and mental health-related reasons.

Someone who socializes in groups or in an environment where drug use is common will be more likely to use. Many people socialize in settings where drug use is very common. As a result they may be more inclined to use themselves, even if they would not otherwise. Someone dealing with mental health problems is more likely to self-medicate if they see this response from others.

People also commonly use drugs to enhance the effects of another drug they are using concurrently. Many people also report using drugs to alleviate boredom or frustration. Many people will use drugs recreationally or socially without developing a dependence. However, others may arrive at a place where they cannot fulfill the same functions without drugs. They may start to use them compulsively.

 Dangers of Addiction

Whatever a person’s reasons for using drugs it is possible to develop an addiction. If this occurs, the individual will probably require professional support. The variety of different reasons a person may use drugs demonstrates the importance of holistic, person-centric treatment. Rather than a standardized approach, the most effective treatment focuses on the underlying issues of a particular person’s problems. It treats the whole person and not just the addiction. This helps them to build the strongest possible foundation for lasting recovery.

Trafalgar Addiction Treatment Centres

Trafalgar Addiction Treatment Centres

We offer residential and outpatient rehab treatment programs for addiction and co-occurring mental health disorders.

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