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Drug Addiction… Nature or Nurture?

An Age-Old Question

Do we inherit drug and alcohol addiction, or are these learned behaviors? It’s common knowledge that addiction tends to run in families, but whether or not this tendency is rooted in nature, aka genetics, or nurture, aka environment, has been hotly debated for decades. This age-old question has been around for as long as people have struggled with substance abuse. Why do some folks have a hard time controlling their use, while others don’t? Is it nature or nurture? The truth is that BOTH play a role in addiction, which speaks to the complexity of this issue. What’s more, when both family history and environmental factors are at play, this combination further exacerbates the risk of addiction.

The fact is that addiction to drugs and alcohol are conditions that stem from highly individual and complicated causes, and unfortunately cannot be sourced to any one specific thing. One thing is for sure: figuring out the root cause for someone’s addictive behavior can’t simply be chalked up to family history alone, or a person’s environment. A more accurate assumption would be one that recognizes addiction as a kind of thumbprint – each person’s trajectory towards addiction is as unique as the person themselves.

Developmental Age is a Factor

Current research estimates that both environment and biology have about an equal influence on whether or not a person develops an addiction or a substance abuse problem. The ratios will of course shift depending on an individual’s specific life circumstances. Some folks have little to no substance abuse issues in their families but will still develop a severe substance or alcohol use disorder. In cases like these, one could argue that their environment may be a heavier influence on their propensity towards addiction than someone who’s entire family line is riddled with alcohol or substance abuse. Other “nurture” aspects to consider when investigating the origins of addiction have to do with a person’s developmental age when they begin using. While this isn’t necessarily a root cause, it does impact mental and physical development, which can be a factor in alcohol and substance abuse.

Co-occurring Mental Illness

One of the first places people tend to look to when dealing with someone struggling with addiction is their parents. Since genetics do play a significant role in many aspects of our lives, this would appear to be a logical first place to explore. However current research suggests that genes account for approximately 50 to 60 percent of the possible cause for drug or alcohol abuse. In truth a number of intricate biological factors may increase a person’s risk, including inherent personality traits and metabolic processes. One of the most significant issues to assess for when ascertaining what causes drug addiction or alcoholism is a preexisting mental illness. Statistically, folks struggling with mental illnesses are more likely to use (and abuse) drugs and alcohol than those without. It makes sense if you think about it – it can be an ongoing struggle to live with mental illnesses and the symptoms they bring about. These challenges are further pronounced when symptoms of mental illness go without treatment or diagnosis for longer periods of time. It is important to note that while mental illness does not necessarily CAUSE addiction, it certainly increases risk. One reason for this is because individuals struggling with their mental health will sometimes self-medicate and relieve the effects of their symptoms with substances. This can then lead to increased tolerance alongside more consistent drug or alcohol use. Unfortunately, while drugs and alcohol can seem to relieve symptoms in the short term, they tend to make matters worse over time. When mental disorders coexist with a substance or alcohol use disorder, this is called dual diagnosis or co-occurring disorders. Dual diagnoses can be particularly challenging to treat due to the way symptoms of both disorders influence one another, and often worsen in concert. Those diagnosed with co-occurring disorders tend to benefit from individualized treatment that takes into consideration how these co-occurring disorders influence one another.

Environmental Factors

After exploring an individual’s parents, the next place we tend to examine is the environment in which they grew up. Where did they live? What was their home environment like? Who supervised them, if anyone? How did their caregivers behave and treat them? As with biological factors, an individual’s environment can and often does contribute to drug addiction and alcoholism. These factors include things like family, friends, socio-economic status, trauma exposure or direct experience, divorce, death of a loved one, and more. Research indicates that children who grow up in an environment in which someone has an active substance or alcohol use problem are more at risk to struggle with addiction. Older kids and adolescents who want to fit in with their peers may find themselves exposed to drugs or alcohol. Some start drinking or using at an early age due to the unfortunate combination of poor judgment, peer pressure and/or lack of supervision in their home environments. These problems tend to worsen as kids get older and spend more time with peers who use or abuse drugs and alcohol.

Although we have spent a fair bit of time exploring the earlier developmental years of a person’s life when examining the root causes of addiction, it’s important to note that substance or alcohol use disorder can and often does develop at any age, even later adulthood. That said, folks who start drinking or using drugs at a young age are understandably at a higher risk for substance abuse and addiction later in life. Despite this truth, not every teen who tries substances goes on to heavy use or addiction. That said, those who do may find it harder to control as their issues with substances progress.

If you or someone you love is grappling with addiction and is in need of treatment, call Positive Recovery Centers at 713-904-4699. We are experts, we are here to help, and our treatment teams are committed to the ongoing health and safety of all our patients.