No disease exists due to genetic factors alone. In fact, most diseases are a result of a combination of genetic factors (“diabetes runs in my family”) and environmental factors (“I eat a diet high in sugar”). The same is true for the disease of addiction.
If you have a genetic family history of addiction, you have a 50-80% chance of developing the disease yourself (depending on if you are male or female). See NIDA article: Twin Studies , See also: Adoption Studies
Many stigmas about addiction abound in our society. Addiction is seen as a moral issue, a matter of personal weakness, a lack of intelligence, and/or a result of a “bad childhood” or, for example, a response to grief or trauma. This is NEVER the case. Certain life events may lead a person to choose to use a substance (such as alcohol) or engage in a pleasurable behavior (such as gambling) as a means of escape or relief, but it is the inability to stop once they’ve started that is the genetic, biological disease of addiction – the inability to stop is not a choice, it is a biological drive. Addiction becomes an obsessive-compulsive behavior and that behavior is rooted in the neurochemical actions in our brain. And our genes are responsible for our neurological make-up.
Recent research has confirmed that addiction is a genetic, biological brain disease (see the NIDA website for an array of research articles on the subject). In fact , addiction is called a “Primary Disease” because it is not caused by anything else and must be treated first before any other issues are going to improve. Addiction causes a long-lasting chemical imbalance in the brain. Actually, addiction causes depression, anxiety/panic attacks, trouble sleeping, an inability to cope with grief/trauma, and a whole host of other issues. Addiction is oftentimes misdiagnosed as Bipolar Disorder, Personality Disorder, Major Depression, and many other so-called “co-occurring” disorders due to the physician’s lack of understanding of addiction and its symptoms (more on this in the Dual Diagnosis section). If a person seeks help for these issues, but continues to use/abuse addictive substances, their mental illness issues/symptoms are not going to improve and will likely worsen.
The following factors may influence a person to pick up and use a substance or engage in an addictive behavior (like gambling) but it is important to note that the genetic factors must also be present as well in order for the person to develop the disease.
- If a person’s community displays attitudes that are favorable towards drug use, firearms, and crime, they are at increased risk to try/use a substance.
- If a person has friends that are using or engaging in an addictive behavior (gambling), they are more likely to try the substance/behavior themselves.
- Family conflict and problems managing the home, along with parents who express favorable attitudes towards drug use and/or actually use substances themselves increases a person’s risk of trying/using substances.
- Poor commitment to school, participation, and performance are also risk factors.
Addiction is NOT a response to life stressors:
Initially, a person may make the choice to try a drug or take a drink of alcohol (the average person does try these substances in adolescence or early adulthood). However, a person with a genetic history of addiction or alcoholism has a different reaction that takes place in their brain as compared to the brains of those without a genetic history of addiction: their brain wants MORE. More is perceived to be better. Over time, the use/abuse of these mood-altering/mind-altering chemicals (addictive drugs or alcohol) changes a person’s brain chemistry (click the “Withdrawal” and “Depression” pages for more specific info on this). It actually “breaks” the brain and it is no longer able to function normally without the use of the drug/chemical. In fact, eventually the person is driven to engage in the use/behavior again because it has become their only source of pleasure. Most people with addiction disorders will tell you that they were no longer experiencing a high at some point, they felt compelled or “driven” to do it just to feel normal or function.
Additionally, it takes a long period of abstinence – much of the latest research shows that a period of 90-days without use of any chemicals is a good amount of time – for the brain to jump-start the healing process and begin to get back to a healthy chemical balance. It can take a year or more without use for the brain to return to normal functioning. Until that time, personality changes, mood swings, poor impulse control, symptoms of depression, trouble sleeping, anxiety, and other symptoms may persist. Oftentimes, a person may return to using to relieve these symptoms or to feel “normal” again. This is why relapse rates amongst those with addiction disorders are extremely high.
There are many treatment centers that are designated “Dual Diagnosis” or co-occurring treatment centers (a majority of reputable treatment centers these days are - this is something to check). This means that they treat both the addiction and the other symptoms/mental illness issues at the same time. In any case, it is likely that if the addiction is treated and the person is able to maintain abstinence for a long period of time (and that means abstinence from ANY mood-altering substance or behavior, not just the one they were using/engaging in), the mental illness issues will either go away, greatly improve with time, or at the very least be much more manageable.