A common question about substance abuse is whether it’s hereditary.
Yes, there can be a genetic predisposition to substance abuse. In fact, the American Psychological Association (APA) states that “at least half of a person’s susceptibility to drug or alcohol addiction can be linked to genetic factors.”
However, understanding the other half of that equation is a vital component in determining a person’s risk for addiction. As the APA notes, “propensity isn’t destiny.”
What Factors Contribute to Addiction?
The National Institute on Drug Abuse, also referred to as NIH, reinforces that addiction is a brain disease. Specifically, it’s a disorder that results in “functional changes to brain circuits involved in reward, stress, and self-control.” Identifying addiction as a brain disease is also the perspective of medical experts at the American Medical Association, the Institute of Medicine, and the American Psychiatric Association.
When examining whether someone is prone to substance abuse because a blood relative suffers from it, it’s important to understand the full context of all contributing risk factors.
- According to the NIH, genes and environmental stressors on gene expression represent 40–to–60 percent of an individual’s addiction risk.
- There are five mental health illnesses that can be hereditary: ADHD, autism, bipolar disorder, depression, and schizophrenia. Untreated or unmanaged mental illness is often a major risk factor for substance abuse.
- The NIH reports that while men are more likely to use illicit substances and have a higher rate of dependence, women may be in more danger of craving and relapse.
- The medical community doesn’t acknowledge an “addictive personality” as a singular entity.
- However, there are several personality traits that may co-exist with addiction, including impulsive tendencies, nonconformity, and an impairment of metabolic, physiological, or psychological processes.
- Early childhood interactions within the home and with family contribute a great deal to increasing a person’s risk for substance abuse. Children exposed to harmful situations and family member misuse of drugs or alcohol experience more behavioral problems, which often leads to experimentation.
- Peers and friends are strong influencers, especially for teens. Even if a young person doesn’t have a genetic predisposition, the desire to fit in, lack of proper supervision, inadequate social skills, and community poverty are pivotal contributors to his or her risk of substance abuse.
- However, just as genetics isn’t an absolute causation factor for addiction, direct influences aren’t always the problem. For example, medical experts believe the majority of children who have parents with addiction challenges don’t develop substance use disorders.
- Research indicates children and adolescents who experience traumatic events have a greater risk of substance abuse.
- Unless properly treated, trauma reduces the ability to be resilient and cope with life challenges, especially in a dysfunctional environment. This increases the likelihood an individual will self-medicate in order to deal with difficult situations or harmful memories.
- The scope of trauma is vast. It includes emotional, physical, or sexual abuse; neglect or abandonment; domestic or societal violence; grief and other drastic loss; and war, terrorism, or refugee displacement.
- If someone has a predisposition for substance abuse and experiences severe trauma, it may be difficult for him or her to avoid using drugs or alcohol to excess.
The bottom line is this: regardless of genetic predisposition, there isn’t one factor that predicts addiction. It’s usually caused by a domino effect of circumstances that leads to compulsive use. Once a person’s brain chemistry and function are altered by the disease, any mix of behavior, social context, and biology will need to be corrected for a full recovery.
Prepare Your Family
Transparency is really the key to keeping family members healthy. If there’s a pattern of substance abuse disorder, being open and honest about it is the first line of defense.
Think of it this way—if your family had another hereditary health condition, such as a gene mutation that causes sickle cell disease or breast cancer, you’d talk about it, right? There’s no shame in helping your loved ones avoid risk factors and recognize the primary symptoms of potential generational substance abuse.
- Establish protective factors. Just as there are risk factors for addiction, certain protective factors help reduce those risks, especially in children. Provide proper adult supervision and support; implement positive self-control techniques; encourage methods of engaging socialization; help establish the intrinsic rewards of goal setting and accomplishment; and seek out community resources that reinforce all of the above.
- Create a family health portrait. Your descendants have a right to know what may affect their physical, emotional, and mental health. Use this confidential resource from NIH to start the conversation and provide details.
- Education is key. It’s never too early to explain the effects of drugs and alcohol. KidsHealth provides a guideline for age-appropriate discussions to help replace misconceptions with proper information.
- Be truthful about your struggles and triumphs. Your journey to wellness helps demystify generational substance abuse and provide a roadmap to understanding addiction and recovery.
- Secrets tend to make things worse: use your courage to create a better life for the people you love.
Willingway’s Family Program
At Willingway, we believe addiction is disease that can devastate the entire family. Fortunately, we also know through recovery, families can heal together and emerge stronger.
Our in-patient treatment facility provides a five-day intensive experience at the end of a loved one’s stay in order to help family members learn about alcoholism and drug addiction treatment, and each member’s role in the recovery process. Learn how families become allies in long-term sobriety.