Risk Factors for Addiction

Caution tape

Dane O'Leary February 28, 2020

What causes addiction? It’s a question that researchers, treatment professionals, and concerned loved ones have been asking for decades. However, even though our understanding of addiction is far from complete, we have a good idea of what the risk factors for addiction are.

So we’re going to draw the curtain by defining some of the variables that can contribute to the development of addiction. By providing you with a better understanding of the possible causes of addiction, our hope is to enable prevention through risk identification.

What are the Most Common Risk Factors for Addiction?

After decades of research, we have come to understand addiction as having a lot in common with a disease like diabetes. Because once it develops, addiction often requires intensive treatment before stable recovery is achieved. In fact, it’s quite common for patients to need multiple rounds of treatment before they’re able to sustain their sobriety for the long-term.

And just like other diseases, we know there are risk factors for addiction. Varying from one person to the next, these risk factors are biological, psychological, and social variables that contribute to the development of addiction.

Family at dinner with drinks
Photo: Pablo Merchán Montes

Family History of Addiction

One of the biggest risk factors for addiction is family history, which could be due to either genetic or social contributors. Or possibly even both.

On the one hand, the possibility of a genetic cause for addiction is compelling. Of course, there hasn’t been one specific gene — or even a set of genes — identified as being the direct cause of addiction. However, there are certain genetic markers that people suffering from addiction often exhibit. So instead of causality, it’s likely a case of correlation. Or to put that another way, while certain genetic markers might be a sign of increased susceptibility, those genes aren’t a guarantee that addiction will develop.

In cases of addiction running in families, it could also be a situation of learned behavior. For instance, when a parent suffers from addiction, his or her children are probably going to see some substance abuse. Over time, the parent’s alcohol or drug abuse begins to feel normal, and as a result, the children become more likely to pick up that behavior as they reach adolescence and adulthood.

Teen girl with backpack
Photo: Kamila Maciejewska

Age of First Consumption

Even just on a surface level, adolescent substance abuse is problematic. Because when youths are under the influence, their judgment is impaired and they become exponentially more likely to cause harm to themselves or others.

However, adolescent substance abuse is known to increase the likelihood of eventual addiction, which is another reason why it’s so problematic. In fact, the earlier substance use begins, and the more the substance is used, the greater the chance of addiction becomes.

It’s a situation that’s quite similar to learned behavior. But instead of learning it from their family members, adolescents who dabble in substance abuse are essentially teaching themselves not to fear the repercussions of alcohol and drug use. Each time the substance is consumed without consequence, an adolescent will see substance abuse as less risky. This can lead to other types of risk-taking beyond just substance abuse. So even when an adolescent doesn’t develop a full-blown addiction, those experiences can inform future behavior and consumption habits.

Friends drinking wine
Photo: Kelsey Chance

Peer Groups

We use the term “peer pressure” to refer to when someone’s friends are encouraging some type of bad behavior. Despite being aware of this social dynamic, many people feel obligated to abuse alcohol or drugs due to peer pressure.

Sometimes peer pressure is subtle, meaning it happens without the person even realizing it. This is the most dangerous type of peer pressure because it often leaves the subject feeling like a bad choice was his or her own, not realizing that the behavior wouldn’t have happened if he or she was part of a different peer group. To make matters worse, adolescents often have a poor understanding of the real consequences of substance abuse, almost feeling like their youth exempts them from the most dire repercussions.

Pressure from peer groups tends to be a particularly common cause of substance abuse for adolescents and teens. It’s for this very reason that many parents try to remain aware of who their children are spending time with and whether those friends are encouraging harmful behavior. Because any concern for the possibility of becoming addicted dissipates as the substance abuse continues.

Teen girl is sad in the dark
Photo: Eric Ward

Untreated Mental Illness

Another thing we’ve learned through years of research is that people who suffer from addiction frequently suffer from a co-occurring mental illness (called “comorbidity”).

In many cases, it starts with someone not receiving treatment for mental illnesses. Hoping to relieve some of the symptoms of the untreated disorder, the individual will turn to alcohol or drugs. Many of us identify this behavior as “self-medicating”. Comorbid mental illness is so common that many substance abuse treatment centers also offer treatment and case management for many mental and emotional disorders.

If someone attempting to alleviate a mental illness through alcohol or drug use doesn’t get treatment, then the self-medicating can escalate. In this situation, it becomes quite likely that addiction will develop sooner or later.

Girl biting pencil from stress
Photo: JESHOOTS.COM

High Stress

There’s a reason why stress is often referred to as the “silent killer”: Because it affects us in almost every conceivable way. From our decision-making to our base physiology, stress has a major impact on bodily functioning. And it’s known to be one of the most common risk factors for addiction.

Much like with an untreated mental illness, people who aren’t able to sufficiently manage their stress are more likely to self-medicate with alcohol and drugs. Using depressants and substances like alcohol or opioids, the symptoms of stress — e.g. increased blood pressure, elevated body temperature, racing thoughts, inability to sleep — subside. To someone who’s self-medicating, substance abuse seems like a pretty good solution.

But as with other risk factors on this list, substance abuse of any kind puts a person at a high chance of becoming addicted. This is particularly bad for those who suffer from chronic stress because as stress becomes more severe and frequent, periods of no stress become fewer and farther between. As a result, chemical dependence is all but an inevitability without clinical assistance.

Silicon Beach Treatment Center is Your Source for All Things Addiction & Recovery

Although there’s not a cure for addiction, nobody has to continue suffering in the throes of a substance use disorder. At Silicon Beach Treatment Center, our mission is to help you (or a loved) one take back your independence. Through comprehensive treatment and world-class support, our patients acquire all the tools they need to thrive long after finishing treatment.

To learn more about Silicon Beach Treatment Center and the recovery services we offer, call us today!

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