Content Reviewed by Cameron Bolish, M.Ed., CEO of PaRC

Watching someone struggle with addiction can be overwhelming and confusing when you have never experienced it yourself. You may have fallen into the trap of thinking addiction is a choice, wondering why someone would continue to engage in self-destructive behavior as the consequences of their behavior become more severe.

It is essential for you to understand that addiction affects everyone differently. Substance abuse and addiction both vary from person to person regarding effects, symptoms and treatment response. It is important to understand the risk factors related to developing an addiction to better respond to a loved one engaging in harmful substance use behavior.

Risks that Contribute to the Development of Addiction

There are several situations and factors that can contribute to the development of addiction. Generally, these factors include genetics, environment and a person’s drug of choice.

Genetic vulnerabilities can make a person more susceptible to becoming addicted to anything related to pleasure, not merely addiction to substances. Your loved one may have a genetic predisposition to addictive behavior if they have a close relative diagnosed with addiction or another mental health condition. If they already have a diagnosed mental health condition, that also puts them at a higher risk.

Environmental Risk Factors

Children and teens are at much higher risk of developing an addiction if their parents are uninvolved or neglectful in their life. Peer pressure is another factor that many people consider, especially among young people. Every person will hear, see and experience different things regarding drug use and abuse. To understand your loved one’s risks for developing an addiction, consider how they may have been introduced to drug use in their own life.

Some other situational risk factors include:

  • Parental influence
  • Peer influence
  • Home influence
  • Cultural norms
  • Media representation of substance use
  • School performance
  • Availability of drugs
  • How a person copes with stressors

The Addictive Potential of Substances

Another factor to consider that pertains to developing an addiction is a person’s drug of choice. Some drugs have a higher addictive potential than others. Alcohol, for instance, is among the few substances that require medical detox when a person tries to stop drinking. The drug of choice, the intensity of drug use and the frequency of drug use all factor into whether or not a person will become addicted to a substance.

Why Do People Use Drugs?

People start using — or continue to use — drugs for various reasons. In general, people take drugs so they can:

  • Experience feelings of pleasure
  • Experience self-medicated physical or mental pain relief
  • Experience freedom from feelings of anxiety, depression and other mental health conditions
  • Perform better in school, at work or in sports
  • Feel accepted by peer groups
  • Ease their curiosity

There are several factors and consequences to keep in mind when it comes to experimenting with any kind of substance. When a person first uses a drug, they may be able to perceive positive effects from it. These feelings of pleasure are what motivate a person to use a substance again and again. Over time, a person’s brain chemistry becomes altered so much so that they need to use their substance to achieve their sense of “normal.”

Initially, the decision to engage in drug use is typically voluntary. Depending on how addictive the substance is to start, continued use of substances significantly impairs feelings of self-control. Lack of self-control is what defines the condition of addiction.

What Does Addiction Do to the Brain?

Addiction disrupts the normal, healthy functioning of the brain and body. Nearly every area of the brain is affected by drug use, although specific locations include brain areas associated with:

  • Identifying feelings of well-being and pleasure
  • Motivating drug-seeking and other seemingly pleasurable behaviors
  • Critical thinking, problem-solving and decision-making skills
  • Self-control

The most significant effect that drug use has on the brain is how it impairs the brain’s reward circuit. This circuit is responsible for identifying and reinforcing feelings of pleasure. Our brains are wired to repeat pleasurable activities, so when we start to engage in repetitive substance use, our brain becomes attached to the substance as well as the “high” it produces.

After multiple exposures to substances, the brain’s reward circuit begins to trigger uncontrollable cravings regardless of whether or not the person is using the substance. It can take years to reverse the brain alterations caused by substance use and addiction.

Identifying Protective Factors Against Addiction

Although we’ve identified risk factors for developing an addiction, it is important that we recognize useful protective factors to help yourself or your loved one avoid the experience of addiction. These protective factors include:

  • Self-efficacy (belief in self-control)
  • Parental monitoring — whether that be monitoring of relationships, academics or engagement with substances
  • Positive relationships with others
  • Positive academic performance
  • Exposure to substance use education

Addiction affects everyone differently because every person’s brain chemistry is different and responds differently to any substance. There are several risk factors associated with addiction, including genetic vulnerabilities, environmental risk factors and the drug of choice in question. If you or your loved one is struggling with addiction, it can be frustrating to feel as if no one else understands what you are going through. Luckily, we know how you feel. PaRC (Prevention and Recovery Center) is a premier drug and alcohol rehab center for adults and teens. Our compassionate and professional mental health staff is dedicated to ensuring that our clients receive intensive treatment so they are able to heal from their addiction. We offer a variety of treatment services and therapies to individualize each client’s care. We believe that effective treatment lies in our ability to provide a relatable and valuable treatment experience. For more information, call us at (713) 939-7272