Addiction: Nature or Nurture?

One of the most common (and complicated) questions related to addiction is: “What causes it?” Historically, our society has often viewed addiction as some moral failing (as I also mentioned in this post. We still see this attitude alive and well in many places today: when we suggest that someone who is deep in their addiction “just stop” using drugs and alcohol, when we look down upon someone for being a “druggy”, an “addict”, or a “drunk”, or when we assume that addiction only happens to the “bad” people. Thankfully, many professionals in the field, people in recovery, and other advocates are working to erase this misconception by educating the public and helping those that need it, without all the unnecessary shame and judgment.

Is Addiction Hereditary or Environmental?

Do you develop addiction because it “runs in your family” or because you “ran with the wrong crowd”? Research from the National Institutes of Health says, “Genes account for about 50 percent of a person’s risk of becoming addicted, and environmental factors influence the effect of these genes.” This means that, if addiction is common in your family history, you are at a higher risk of developing an addiction yourself.  However, it’s important to notice the word “risk” there. Family history of addiction does not necessarily mean that you will develop addiction – that’s where the environmental part comes in. This post from fellow blog site Neuroanthropology beautifully summarizes both the genes and the environmental factors that put someone at risk for developing an addiction.

If you are “genetically predisposed” (at risk) to addiction because you have a family history of it, there are both “protective” and “risk” factors that can either contribute to the development of, or protect you from, addiction. This article from Motherly talks about some of these factors. (Seriously, you need to read that article. So good.) Protective factors are the things in your environment that will naturally make you less likely to experiment with drugs and alcohol (thus, less likely to develop an addiction). Protective factors include things like having good relationships with adults as a child, having good relationships with your peers, ability to express your emotions, spirituality, feeling safe, healthy coping skills, etc. Risk factors (things that make you more likely to experiment with drugs and alcohol) include things like unhealthy or lack of relationships with adults as a child, lack of peer relationships, fear for your safety, difficulty expressing or regulating your emotions, etc. This is a much more comprehensive list of risk and protective factors by (Notice that there are A LOT more protective factors than risk factors – hallelujah! Some good news!). There’s also a very popular TED Talk by Johann Hari that talks about the experiment known as “Rat Park”. This experiment essentially suggested that the rats who lived fulfilling, satisfying lives were significantly less likely to drink the cocaine-laced water than the rats that were isolated and alone. I don’t completely agree with everything stated in the video, but it really speaks to the importance of having healthy social relationships in our lives.

The other question that begs to be asked here is whether or not a person can become addicted, even if it doesn’t run in the family. In short, yes. This article from American Addiction Centers talks about how repeated, prolonged exposure to an addictive substance can and will lead to physical and psychological dependence on the substance – what they call “neuroadaptation”. Your brain goes through physical changes over time when it’s exposed to drugs and alcohol consistently, which leads to dependence on those substances.

So what do we do with this information? How do we protect ourselves and future generations to the best of our ability? First, we make ourselves aware of those risk factors. Do I have a family history of addiction? Did I experience anything traumatic as a child? Did I grow up watching my parents use drugs or excessive alcohol? Being aware of the problem and what caused it is the first step toward changing it. Then, we build up those protective factors: making sure that we have healthy social support in our lives, developing healthy coping skills, practicing good self-care, making sure that our children feel safe, loved, and validated.

Protective factors may seem small, or maybe they are things that we have taken for granted, but I wonder how different the world would be if we spent the time intentionally building these protective factors around ourselves and our children? How about we find out?


Take care of yourselves.

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