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How Does Addiction Start?

picture of Joe Gilmore
Medically Reviewed By: Diana Vo, LMFT

May 8, 2024 (Originally Published)

May 21, 2024 (Last Updated)

Table of Contents

Among the questions we are asked most frequently at Renaissance Recovery are “How does drug addiction begin?”, or “How does alcohol addiction start?

Well, every person is different, and every addiction starts differently. Begin your recovery journey today with personalized treatment by contacting our Florida or California rehab now.

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Understanding How Drug Addiction Begins

NIDA (National Institute on Drug Abuse) defines addiction as a chronic brain condition. Someone with an addiction can’t stop using drink or drugs, even when bad things happen. Addiction changes how the brain experiences pleasure and disrupts normal functions like motivation and learning. This leads to a need for more of the substance to feel the same level of pleasure.

Addiction starts in an area of the brain called the nucleus accumbens. This part of the brain is known as the pleasure center. When someone does something enjoyable like using a drug, dopamine is released. Dopamine is a feel-good brain chemical, and dopamine release acts as a reward and encourages the person to repeat the behavior. 

Alcohol and drugs can burden the reward system, releasing a lot of dopamine and creating a response that can trigger addiction. If someone keeps using drugs or alcohol, they build a tolerance. This means they need more drugs or alcohol to feel the same effects. Over time, the body starts to rely on the substance and shows withdrawal symptoms without it – this is known as dependence.

Substance Abuse Initiation

Substance abuse may begin for many reasons, such as:

  • Curiosity
  • Peer pressure
  • Escaping stress
  • Dealing with emotional pain

Teens and young adults are easily influenced by their friends, so they are likely to experiment with drugs and alcohol during these years. Sometimes, substance use starts with alcohol or marijuana, substances often seen as less harmful. However, both substances can be addictive. The younger someone is when they start using these substances, the greater the risk of addiction.

Family environment and exposure can also play a part in substance abuse initiation. People with a family history of addiction or those in households with others using drink or drugs may see this as normal behavior.

Teens battling anxiety or depression may use drugs or alcohol to feel better. Self-medicating does nothing to fix the mental health issue, though. It also worsens the condition and may lead to addiction.

No matter how someone begins using drugs or alcohol, it all ties back to the brain’s reward system. The pleasure they first feel makes them want to do it again.  This sets the stage for dependence because the brain gets used to the good feelings linked to using the substance. 

Development of Dependence

Dependence on substances develops gradually as the brain and body adjust to the presence of the drug. At first, using a substance like alcohol or drugs triggers a strong feeling of pleasure or relief. Over time, the brain becomes used to these effects, requiring more to achieve the same feeling (tolerance).

As tolerance builds, the brain starts to rely on the substance to function normally. This creates a new normal for the brain, where it needs the drug to maintain balance. If the person stops using the substance, they may experience withdrawal symptoms like nausea, sweating, or anxiety, which is a clear sign of dependence.

Social factors can also impact dependence. If a person often uses substances in specific places or with certain groups, being around them can cause cravings. As time goes on, this habit becomes harder to break.

Additionally, ease of access to substances can fuel dependence. If someone has easy access to a drug or alcohol, it can be harder to avoid it, increasing the risk of continued use and dependence.

A man is looking out at California scenery to represent the question, "how does drug addiction start?".

Cycle of Addiction

The cycle of addiction starts with the first use of a substance, which leads to pleasurable feelings due to a flood of dopamine in the brain. As use continues, tolerance builds, meaning the person needs more of the substance to feel the same effects. Increased tolerance leads to dependence, where the body and brain begin to need the substance to function normally.

As dependence sets in, the person might experience withdrawal symptoms when they don’t use the substance. These symptoms can be physically and emotionally uncomfortable, driving them to use the substance again to avoid these feelings. This cycle of withdrawal and relief creates a strong urge to keep using the substance, even if it harms their health, relationships, and daily life.

Breaking this cycle needs awareness, support, and often professional treatment. Understanding how addiction works is the first step to seeking help and working toward recovery. You can break the cycle and start a healthier, substance-free life with the right support.

Learn to Stop Addiction at Renaissance Recovery

Addiction can affect anyone, no matter who they are. If you or someone you care about needs help with substance abuse, consider Renaissance Recovery.

We provide outpatient treatment for addictions at our beautiful beachside center. This way, you can get help without missing out on personal or work responsibilities. For those who need more structured care, we offer intensive outpatient programs. We can also help you find detox centers across California to manage drug or alcohol withdrawal.

Our treatment programs offer customized care, which may include:

  • Talk therapies like CBT or DBT
  • Medication-assisted treatment
  • Holistic therapies
  • Group therapy
  • Family therapy
  • One-to-one counseling
  • Aftercare planning

When you’re ready to break free from addiction, call 866.330.9449.



At Renaissance Recovery our goal is to provide evidence-based treatment to as many individuals as possible. Give us a call today to verify your insurance coverage or to learn more about paying for addiction treatment.

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Joseph Gilmore has been in the addiction industry for three years with experience working for facilities all across the country. Connect with Joe on LinkedIn.

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