How Does a Substance Use Disorder Develop?


While the initial decision to use alcohol or drugs tends to be voluntary, no one chooses to become addicted. Many people start using substances to feel good, to feel better, to do better, or out of curiosity (because “everyone else is doing it”). However, as a SUD develops and progresses, it affects brain function, and a person’s ability to control their use diminishes. What was once a decision to use turns into a compulsion. This is why engaging with treatment as soon as possible is so important.

Stressful life events such as the death of a loved one, severe illness, exposure to violence or trauma, and extreme stress can prompt people to use substances in risky ways, often as an attempt to cope, which can spiral into the development of a SUD.

SUDs can develop at any age, but people who start using substances as adolescents have a much higher risk of developing a SUD later in life.


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*This graph shows the percent of people who develop a SUD based on their age of first use. Most people who develop a SUD started using substances in their teen years before their brain had fully matured.