“Not all addictions are rooted in abuse or trauma, but I do believe they can all be traced to painful experience. A hurt is at the center of all addictive behaviors…As we’ll see, the effects of early stress or adverse experiences directly shape both the psychology and the neurobiology of addiction in the brain.”
~Gabor Maté, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction
Every person who struggles with an addiction – and every suffering family member – eventually asks this question:
“What causes addiction”?
Is it NATURE – Are we at the mercy of our genetics?
Is it NURTURE – Is our susceptibility to substance abuse shaped by our environment and experiences?
Per the National Institute on Drug Abuse, it may be less of a question of “nature OR nurture” and more of an answer of “nature AND nurture”.
The Link Between Addiction and Genetics
A recent study conducted at the Medical College of Virginia discovered that drug use progresses to abuse and dependence “due largely to genetic factors”. Per several twin studies, the indications are that roughly half of an individual’s susceptibility to addiction is because of genetics.
How Environment Contributes to the Development of Addiction
The likelihood that a person may develop an addiction is influenced by several risk factors:
• Exposure to parental substance abuse
• Unstable home life
• Lack of community involvement
• Disengagement at school
• Peer pressure
The Connection between Addiction and Mental Illness
Dr. James Garbutt, M.D., a Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, says, “Mental illness can increase the risk for alcoholism or drug abuse, sometimes because of self-medicating. On the other hand, alcoholism can lead to significant anxiety and depression that may appear indistinguishable from a mental illness.”
There are many psychological disorders that can worsen – or be worsened by – an addictive disorder:
• Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
• Disorder Eating
• Bipolar Disorder
Dr. Garbutt, who also serves as a research scientist at the Bowles Center for Alcohol Studies, comments that “Mental illness and alcoholism or drug abuse interact in a complex dance.”
How Personal Habits Can Contribute to Addiction
Heavy and/or long-term alcohol or drug abuse can result in changes within the user’s brain, causing a physical dependence. Dependency is one of the early stages of addiction. Some habits that can become problematic are:
• Episodes of binge-drinking
• Regular alcohol or drug use
• Long-term use of certain prescriptions, primarily opioid painkillers or benzodiazepines
Recent research suggests that a person’s brain may start to change after their first-ever drink, and these changes are magnified among those people who already have a genetic predisposition to addiction.
There is no single, separately-identifiable factor that causes an addictive disorder. On the contrary, it is an extremely complicated disease that is influenced by several factors.
This is why there is also no one treatment approach that works for 100% of the people, 100% of the time. The best recovery programs address the disease of addiction on multiple levels – physical, mental, emotional, behavioral, spiritual, and nutritional – using a combination of evidence-based therapies and accepted holistic options.
The major benefit of such a wide-ranging approach to recovery from addiction is that it makes it easier to tailor treatment to the individual, thereby maximizing the chances of a successful return to sobriety, sanity, safety, and serenity.