Scientist have been attempting to identify what the risk factors for addiction are for over one hundred years. However, it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly what causes addiction to take root. While the nature versus nurture debate has gotten the most attention from society and media, there are plenty of potential factors could put a person at a higher risk for developing an addiction.

The Link Between Genetics and Environment

According to the National Library of Medicine the top two risk factors for becoming addicted to a substance is having a genetic predisposition, and environment. This may shed light on why the nature versus nurture debate has gotten so much attention- because each of the two factors are considered top risk factors.

The same study by the National Library of Medicine found that environment was the highest determining factor in whether an individual would end up experimenting with smoking, drinking, or trying drugs earlier in their adolescence. However, during older teenage years and early adulthood, genetic factors became the most prominent link to substance abuse.

 The genetic predisposition means if a family member- particularly a parent or close family member- has a substance abuse disorder, you are more likely to also develop a substance use disorder. This does not necessarily mean that a child with addicted parents will absolutely inherit an addiction, nor does it mean that there is a specific gene that determines addiction. Rather, there are a variety of genetic factors which can heighten the likelihood of a child being passed addictive behaviors. According to the Genetic Science Learning Center:

“Because addiction has an inherited component, it often runs in families. That is, it can be passed down from parent to child by way of genes.”

The environmental factor refers to whether you were exposed to drug abuse, physical or mental abuse, sexual abuse or a number of other factors that can trigger substance abuse. Family life is not the only environmental factor in whether a person will develop an addiction. The Genetic Science Learning Center also studied a variety of environmental factors and found that friends, community, and pass-times all contribute to decisions to try drugs. If you spend time with peers who use drugs or fall into a community group who uses drugs- such as a gang- this can raise the risk of you developing an addiction. The Center found that:

“Roughly 10% of all people who experiment with drugs become addicted.”

The Link to Mental Health

Though genetics and environment are the two biggest factors in whether an individual will develop an addiction, they are certainly not the only factors. Mental health is the third biggest factor in risk of becoming addicted.

Untreated mental health disorders can be very dangerous to the individual affected. Chemical imbalances in the brain effect daily thought processes and decision-making leading those affected to, at times, make less rational decisions than others. This thinking can lead to an increased risk of trying drugs or alcohol. Additionally, for those who are already using substances, it can lower the chance of them seeing how risky their behavior is. This can also cause a higher tolerance to potential consequences of drug use.

Another reason mental health can be a risk factor for addiction is that the individual may feel the need to seek relief from the emotional turmoil. Medical News Today lists relieving sadness or stress as a key factor in substance use.  Using illicit substances to compensate for negative emotions is known as “self-medicating” and is a common reason why individuals use drugs or alcohol. Depression and anxiety are two of the highest occurring mental health disorders which lead to self-medicating.

Dealing with Trauma

Those who have experienced trauma often seek out ways to free themselves of the pain they feel. Because of this, experiencing a traumatic event is a major risk factor in developing an addiction. Psychology Today Reports that:

“Adults abused as children are reportedly 1.5 times more likely to say they used illicit drug use in the past year compared to individuals who were not abused as children.”

To make matters worse, the same study reported that “One in 6 boys, and 1 in 4 girls, are sexually abused before the age of 18.” Individuals who have suffered trauma often report feeling lonely and isolated because of their experience, and children of abuse more so than adults report feeling like they don’t feel that they can relate to their peers. Additionally, trauma can cause significant damage to self esteem and contribute or cause mental health disorders which can cause an increased risk of substance abuse.

Feelings of Guilt and Shame

Those who experience strong feelings of guilt or shame in their lives are also more at risk than others for developing a substance abuse disorder. These feelings cause children and adolescents to want to block out those feelings or numb them, and they are more likely than others to fall victim to substance use disorders. Certain groups of people are at a higher risk of experiencing intense feelings of guilt and shame, including:

  • Members of strict cultural or religious groups: acting in ways that are outside of a culture or religion that you belong to can be a significant trigger for guilt and shame. Additionally, those who feel that the have failed or disappointed their chosen social group are at an increased risk of experiencing depression and anxiety.
  • The LGBTQ Community: Many members of the LGBTQ community have reported feeling guilt or shame over their lifestyle at some point in their life and are more at risk than other groups of people to feel ostracized and without a good support group. The Center on Addiction also reports that members of the LGBTQ community are also more at risk for suicide, and this group has fewer resources available to them for LGBTQ friendly substance abuse and mental health treatment.
  • Overweight Individuals: Surprisingly, being overweight is a trigger for many for feelings of guilt and shame and can lead to substance abuse. Additionally, weight loss supplements and diet pills can often contain ingredients similar to amphetamines and can be addictive on their own. Being overweight can also lead to eating disorders, which are a form of addiction on their own, and can become a cross addiction with drugs and alcohol.

How to Overcome Risk Factors

Just because someone exhibits a risk factor for developing an addiction doesn’t mean that they will become addicted. There are ways to ensure that regardless of an individual’s life circumstances, they don’t fall into a pattern of abusing substances. Some of these include:

  • Having a Good Support System: Feeling loved, understood, and accepted are vitally important to all humans. Finding a group of people, whether friends, family, or community groups who makes someone feel as though they can be themselves and have a place to belong will alleviate some of the feelings that can lead to substance abuse. Another benefit is that having this sense of community can help an individual feel safe to speak up if they are feeling anxious, depressed, or have begun experimenting with substances.
  • Exploring Interests: Confidence is formed from a well-developed sense of self. Encouraging an individual to explore their interests and hobbies is a great way to help them develop their identity, and combat feelings of poor self-esteem or self-worth. Allowing an individual to be themselves and do what they enjoy with love and enthusiasm can be a great way to combat some of the risk factors for addiction.
  • Diet and Exercise: Eating healthy and getting regular exercise has an incredible amount of benefits across the board, but one of those ways is by helping to alleviate symptoms of mental health disorders and helping body image issues.
  • Speaking with a Doctor: If an individual is exhibiting signs of mental health disorders or addiction, encourage them to speak with a doctor or therapist. The longer these issues go on for, the more difficult they can be to treat. Unaddressed mental health and substance abuse disorders can be extremely dangerous, and therapeutic intervention should happen as soon as possible.

Know When to Seek Help

Regardless of how an addiction starts, the good news is that addiction is treatable.  If you or someone you know is suffering from an addiction, don’t wait to get help. Speak with a doctor, therapist, or treatment facility and learn about your options for getting your life back.