Triggering And Common Causes Of Drug Abuse

Administrator / Chief Clinical Officer
Certified cognitive-behavioral therapist, expert addiction and chemical dependency counselor, certified for more than twenty years of experience in adolescent, adult and family psychotherapy.
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While there are emotional, psychological, and physical reasons why people may choose to abuse drugs in the first place, there can be many triggers that fall within these reasons.

Drug Abuse

Reasons People Abuse Drugs

Emotional stress: This can develop for a number of reasons, resulting from the los of a job, a death, a divorce, financial problems, health issues and medical conditions. 

Psychological factors: Drug use may be the result of mental illness, mental trauma, or general attitude and beliefs.

Physically: Many people use drugs to boost their endurance, improve their focus, or enhance their appearance in some capacity. 

Regardless of the reasons for drug use, many people don’t learn how, or fail to cope, in healthy and productive ways. Unfortunately, many people turn to substances as a perceived helpful way to cope.

Triggers for Drug Abuse

Some of the most common underlying triggers for turning to drugs of abuse include:


The death of a loved one, such as a close friend or family member, or even a mentor who positively influenced a person, is emotionally devastating for people. Different people handle grief in different ways. Some people are able to seek counseling or work through grief on their own in healthy ways. Other people really struggle with emotional or physical loss, so they use drugs as a way of coping with grief in the short-term. However, this short-term coping mechanism may transition into a long-term dependence for some people.

End of a Relationship

The end of a relationship is one of the most emotionally destructive events in a person’s life. When a relationship ends through a breakup or divorce, it can negatively impact self-confidence. This goes on to affect other areas of life including career, friendships, families, and even one’s ability to find a purpose. If the person doesn’t have appropriate emotional support available to them, they may use drugs as a way of grieving the loss of their relationship.

Mental Illness

A complex trigger of substance abuse is mental illness. There are several varieties of mental illness that manifest themselves in different ways. Some people who face mental health challenges are vulnerable to using drugs as a way of rationalizing or making sense of their illness. Others who face depression or anxiety disorders may use drugs to help lift them out of these low mental states.

Environmental Influences

The environment that a person has been exposed to can influence and trigger drug use. Growing up in poverty or in households with drug addiction, abuse, crime or other negative factors can create a high risk for substance abuse in those exposed to these conditions. They may perceive drug use as normal or acceptable. Or, they may psychologically believe this to be a pattern they can fall into.


The average adult faces typical life obligations such as bills, family, and work. Because of this, many people look for outlets to help relax and find a balance between responsibilities and having fun. Unfortunately, some people may use drugs as an outlet to help relax and unwind on evenings and weekends. If left unaddressed, this pattern can develop into a dependence or addiction.


When people face physical or emotional pain, they may use drugs to self-medicate. This means they use drugs that aren’t prescribed to them by a doctor. Instead, they use drugs such as painkillers to administer pain relief to themselves. Certain painkillers have highly addictive properties, which often leads to developing an addiction to them.

Financial Stress

The burden of financial stress can be intolerable for many people. Money pressures can cause people to feel trapped, desperate, and out of control. These feelings lead to emotional and psychological conditions that trigger drug use. Drugs can often help people to forget about their financial responsibilities or avoid dealing with them altogether.

Career Pressures

It is common in today’s society to have your identity tied to your career. For many people, their career places a lot of pressure on them to perform, which is often reflected in their idea of their own self-worth. This type of pressure can cause emotional and psychological stress. To help perform better or alleviate work stress, it’s possible to turn to drugs to help cope, forget failures, or boost performance.

School Pressures

Similar to career pressures, school pressure is another one of the common reasons people abuse drugs. Many people face large workloads with classes and homework, financial stress from student loans, balancing family and work while going to school and the pressure to perform academically. These stressful conditions make it easy for some people to be more susceptible to drug use as a way of coping.

Additionally, professional educational programs such as medical or law school have even greater standards of academic achievement, coupled with higher financial costs. It is not uncommon for students in graduate programs to use stimulants and other drugs as a means of boosting their cognitive performance.

Family Demands

Typical family demands include balancing work with raising kids, as well as financial obligations towards family members. But, when those demands become overwhelming, it can be difficult to manage. This may be especially true for young mothers who can face feelings of isolation, loneliness, and anxiety. Drug use, especially through prescription pills, can become an easy way for parents to help cope with family demands.

Peer and Social Pressure

One of the most well-known ways for people — especially teens and young adults — to start using drugs is through external pressures from other people. Commonly known as peer pressure, people may begin using drugs because of the influence of their peers. For them, it becomes something they all share in common, and so they feel pressured to continue to use drugs even if they understand the dire consequences.

Additionally, younger people may experience social pressure to use drugs from television, social media, and other celebrity influences. It’s possible that people see drug use being glorified in the media, and so they feel pressured to participate as well.

Trauma and Abuse

Past or current traumas such as abuse, accidents, emergencies and other events can negatively impact people psychologically. Traumatic events can imprint in memory, making it difficult to move past them. Even traumas that occurred during childhood can resurface in adult years, bringing up new thoughts and feelings. Instead of seeking professional help to address trauma in a healthy way, people may use drugs as a means to help them forget these memories.

Present traumas

Living in an abusive environment can also trigger substance use as a means of forgetting the pain and suffering. Often, abuse is faced on a regular or even daily basis, and so drug use can quickly turn into an addiction in this case.

Enjoyment of Getting High

Many people try drugs once as an experiment and end up finding euphoric sensations from these substances. The chemical reactions between the drug and the brain cause a release of dopamine, which is pleasurable to many people. When this happens, people will continue to chase that same euphoria and release because they like how it makes them feel. It may make them feel more relaxed, self-confident, in control, or any number of other outcomes.


Teens and young adults often face feelings of boredom or monotony, as many of them don’t yet have adult responsibilities such as careers, bills, higher education, families, and more. Drug use may seem like a convenient or entertaining way to pass the time. While this may not always lead to a full addiction, it can often become a go-to way of alleviating boredom instead of choosing other positive activities.

Wanting to Fit In

Because human beings are social creatures, it’s important for us to feel like we belong or fit in. This can affect people of any age but is most influential during teenage and early adult years. If others around them are using drugs, they may fear feeling left out, or that they won’t fit in. As a result, they place pressure on themselves to use drugs as well.

Curiosity and Experimentation

For those who are around drugs, but haven’t yet used them, they may hear positive feedback about certain drugs. They may become intrigued or interested in their friends’ experiences, and so they try certain drugs as well. This isn’t necessarily the result of the pressure of fear of not fitting in, but rather genuine curiosity and a desire to try something new.


Certain personalities are more prone to rebellion or going against the grain. This occurs in teens and even in adults. Because drug use is illicit or not socially acceptable, it actually drives certain people to want to use them in order to rebel, stand out or be different. For some people, this may simply be a phase of rebellion and experimentation, or it may develop into an addiction.

Being in Control

When stressful periods of time occur with relationships, job loss, health scares, or other tragedies, many people lose a sense of being in control of their own lives. Drug use provides a false sense of being in control of health, emotions or behaviors that many people find appealing. They may feel as though when everything else around them is falling apart, they can rely on their substance use to give them stability.

Enhance Performance

Certain drugs may help to temporarily enhance cognitive function, memory, and focus. They may also help to alleviate fatigue and lethargy. These are usually stimulants and other prescription drugs. For students or busy professionals, these types of drugs can seem like a viable solution.

Other drugs, such as anabolic steroids, human growth hormones or stimulants, are used to improve physical performance in athletes or those who are extremely physically active. People often choose to use these types of drugs in order to compete or look a certain way.

Prescription Medications

Prescription drug abuse is becoming an increasingly concerning issue that affects many people. Doctors may prescribe opioid painkillers to patients who are recovering from surgery and facing injuries or other medical situations. Left unmonitored, some people are susceptible to abusing these prescription medications because of the high they provide. They may end up getting hooked unintentionally and begin finding ways to keep obtaining their prescription pills.


Despite being more connected than ever, many people suffer from feelings of isolation. If they feel as though they can’t relate to others or that they aren’t understood by their peers, they may feel out of place. These feelings can lead to low self-esteem or even depression over time. This only further exacerbates a state of isolation. In order to numb this loneliness or emptiness, they use drugs to feel alive and forget about feeling isolated. Using drugs may also give them a sense of satisfaction and purpose.

Misinformation or Ignorance

Drug use and dependence have a number of consequences. Physical, emotional, social, financial, and psychological repercussions stop many people from continuing to use drugs or from using drugs in the first place. Unfortunately, despite the amount of awareness surrounding the risks of drug use, there is still a lot of misinformation about it.

This misinformation may especially impact young or undereducated people who don’t have the life experience or ability to understand the dangers of drug use. Additionally, many people may see others use drugs and not face any health or other concerns, and so they think that it won’t hurt them either.

Instant Gratification

Many individuals have personality types that desire instant gratification. This means they look for ways to be satisfied immediately and in the short-term, as opposed to being satisfied by delayed gratification. This may be especially true in young people who are conditioned today to expect that things happen on-demand.

Drug use delivers instant gratification in terms of physical, psychological, and emotional sensations. It’s also often a social act, which further enhances feelings of gratification.

Availability of Drugs

With the increased convenience of the internet and social media, it’s relatively easy for people to obtain drugs today. When it comes to prescription medications specifically, these drugs are now being distributed as street drugs. They can also easily be obtained from friends, family members, and colleagues who have prescriptions of their own.

Administrator / Chief Clinical Officer
Certified cognitive-behavioral therapist, expert addiction and chemical dependency counselor, certified for more than twenty years of experience in adolescent, adult and family psychotherapy.
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