Addiction is anything but cut-and-dry. There are several complex risk factors, and dozens of treatment options that work best when tested on an individual basis. While certain generalized treatments – like the 12 Steps program – can work, they don’t always. People are built different, and addiction can afflict anyone.
That’s right: anyone. But exactly how does a person come to have a predisposition towards one kind of addiction versus another? We’ll take a look at some of the risk factors and how they play a role in the likelihood of a person developing addiction.
Physical Risk Factors
Addiction can be psychological or physical. A physical addiction is a dependency – it’s when the brain and body adapt quickly to a specific kind of substance, developing a significant tolerance to its effects. In turn, the addict has to take larger and larger dosages to offset the tolerance, leading to dire consequences without proper management or recovery treatment.
Not every addiction is physical. However, while physical dependence is separate from a psychological or emotional attachment to a substance, the two often go hand-in-hand.
One of the biggest risk factors for a physical addiction is genetics – people can carry a predisposition towards physical dependency if drug addiction runs in the family. A family where alcoholism is a problem for several relatives can be more likely to produce an alcoholic. However, having a predisposition towards alcoholism doesn’t guarantee it – it simply increases the chances.
Certain drugs, like opioid painkillers, stimulants, amphetamines and benzodiazepines, are highly addictive by nature – as such, they’re much more likely to turn first-time users into dependent users. However, no substance is guaranteed to make someone addicted at first use.
Gender is also linked to likelihood of dependence. Men who consume drugs are more likely to develop an addiction than women who consume drugs, although addiction in women progresses at a faster rate.
Emotional Risk Factors
The more compromised someone’s emotional health or mental state is, the more likely they are to become addicted. Anxiety, depression and ADHD can be coupled with substance abuse, and the latter two can develop as a result of addiction.
However, peer pressure/social ostracizing and a lack of familial involvement are highest on the list for emotional risk factors, as these compromise a person’s ability to cope with problems and issues. A lower self-esteem and increased self-doubt is linked to addiction because of this, as the simple short-term reward system of addiction is more attractive to people who don’t have an alternative, more robust set of coping mechanisms and support systems in place.
Emotional vulnerability isn’t just the cause of life-long issues, however. A particular moment of weakness, such as a long period of grief, a depression, or a devastating injury can lead to addiction under the right set of circumstances.
No One & Nothing to Blame
In addiction, blame is ultimately wasted. No one wins. When an addict blames themselves, they usually only dig themselves into a deeper psychological hole. When others blame drug addicts for their addiction, then the result is deeper self-loathing and increased societal stigma. By pushing around blame, we perpetuate the issue of addiction both in individuals and society at whole
However, responsibility is a different thing. It’s important to promote responsibility and accountability as core parts of recovery – not addiction. You can’t just stop addiction through responsibility – not in a society where alcohol, nicotine and prescription medication are readily available and a necessary part of culture and medicine. Addiction happens – and when it does, it isn’t usually due to a single glaring factor, but due to a combination of complex issues, both physical and emotional, determining an addict’s relationship to their substance(s) of choice.
Rather than argue that struggling with addiction is a failure in individual responsibility, we need to shift towards the idea that recovering into long-term sobriety is a shining example of strong self-discipline, and individual responsibility. Things are already better than they’ve ever been – many who successfully remain sober are lauded for their emotional strength and ability. But there is still a stigma against anyone “tainted” by drugs or a drug-related past, regardless of the exact nature of their relationship to drugs, and the circumstances of their addiction.
The Usefulness of Numbers
To a degree, this information is extremely helpful. It can help families better understand how to handle addiction in the household, and how to address problems that might contribute to emotional distress, and even practice prevention; it can help people better understand how addiction develops, entirely separate from willpower or self-discipline; it can help you understand how both emotional and physical health plays a role in keeping you sober.
Statistics on addiction help you determine your odds and risk, but a simple oversight or unknown physiological or genetic disposition could mean you’ll develop alcoholism at the drop of a hat, despite a healthy emotional state and good relationship towards others. The myth of an addictive personality, and the idea that willpower matters in addiction – these are unfortunate fabrications and manifestations of stigma, that ultimately just hurt people’s chances at recovery because they see the fight as pointless, and consider themselves doomed to be “horrible people”.
It’s true that, in a sense, anyone can develop an addiction. A perfectly normal life turned upside down by a work-related injury and a life-long diagnosis of chronic pain might turn into a potential addiction to medication, further fueled by the anger and confusion of the injury. Alternatively, a few glasses of wine in the grieving process of a loved one’s loss might turn into a bad habit, with worse consequences. A simple cigarette habit picked up by a friendly co-worker as a stress-reliever at a new hectic position might turn into a chronic need for nicotine to prevent jitters and anxiety.
There is no clear stereotype for addiction – and while there are certain class-related risk factors, like poverty and location, we all have the capacity to lose control in the face of something as dangerously addictive as opiates or amphetamines.
Yet at the end of the day, what really defines us isn’t the fact that we succumbed to addiction and substance abuse – it’s how we got out of it. We need to learn to stop judging people for their addictions, and support them in recovery. If what we want is less drug addicts, then that starts with helping the ones we have get better. Blaming them for a complex neurological issue that has a lengthy list of risk factors based on genetics, physiology, socioeconomic status, gender, social circumstance, childhood experience and more is useless.
A person isn’t compromised because they were once an addict. In fact, recovered and sober addicts are strong-willed, and often acutely self-aware. By treating recovered addicts as tainted, we’re simply adding insult to injury.