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Nature AND Nurture: Understanding the Origin of Addiction

Prior to the American Medical Association’s official classification of alcoholism as a medical illness in 1956, popular social opinion believed addiction and alcoholism to be the result of a moral failing of the individual. In the early 1900s, alcoholics and drug addicts were often thrown into State sanitariums, or “insane asylums”, and were believed to be generally incapable of long-term abstinence and recovery. Although the stigmatization of addicts and alcoholics is still prevalent in our society today, advances in neuroscience and genetic and sociological research has opened up new ways of understanding addiction, leading to a more comprehensive picture of the origins of addiction.

 

Nature: The Human Disease

In a sense, all human beings have a genetic predisposition for addiction because it comes with an evolutionary advantage. When we find something in our environment that creates pleasure (such as food, relationships, drugs or alcohol, and so on), we learn to prioritize these substances or interactions because they bring temporary feelings of comfort or security. The brain and the nervous system work together to strategize and obtain experiences that reduce physical discomfort, emotional distress, and mental obsessions. In this regard, addiction can be viewed as an overactive survival strategy, sharing a common ground with the fundamental wiring of the human nervous system.

 

Nature: The Family Disease

In another sense, people who specifically have a family history of alcoholism and addiction are more likely to find themselves afflicted by the disease. The American Psychological Association states that “at least half of a person’s susceptibility to [addiction] can be linked to genetic factors”. As a matter of fact, research studies indicate that the children of addicts are 8 times more likely to develop an addiction of some sort at some point during their lifetime. It’s important to note, however, that addiction can often manifest in different ways, at different times, and develop in differing degrees of severity. Many addicts may begin drinking and using drugs heavily from a young age, while others may develop binge patterns of addiction, with intermittent use throughout one’s lifespan. Other people may not experience signs and symptoms until much later in one’s life, while others may not ever struggle with alcoholism or addiction in an entire lifetime.    

 

Nurture: Underdeveloped Coping Skills

While family history plays an important role in the development of addiction, we shouldn’t let genetic predisposition back us into a corner. Since the turn of the century, scientists have found that, while half of a person’s susceptibility to addiction can be linked to genetic factors, the other half is the result of poor coping skills (Prescott & Kendler, 1999). Poor coping skills often result in an underdevelopment of emotional regulation and social skills, for example: becoming easily upset, blaming others, having difficulty taking praise or criticism, social isolation, relationship enmeshment, and social anxiety. Without a healthy set of coping skills, addicts often find themselves stuck in the repetitive cycle of drug use, which is the habitual strategy that they have developed to cope with the stress of daily living.

 

Nurture: Environmental Factors

Another key element in determining the likelihood for developing addiction can be linked to factors in one’s environment. Humans are a very social species; we are very easily influenced by the people around us. Environmental risk factors are characteristics in a person’s surroundings that increase their likelihood of becoming dependent on drugs and alcohol. A person may have many environments or influence, such as the community, school, family, and friends. Their risk of addiction can develop in any of these domains. Without adequate sober support in one’s environment, it is incredibly hard to develop healthy friendships and break free from the chains of drug and alcohol use.

 

What to Do?

Once in treatment, clinical staff often focus on helping to increase the client’s capacity to cope and find peer support in order to overcome emotional distress and social anxieties. Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, Mindfulness Therapy, and the peer support developed through ongoing group therapy and 12 step meetings are all key factors in helping patients understand and begin to practice new coping skills. Although genetic factors may influence the likelihood of alcoholism or addiction, the development of healthy coping skills and peer support empowers recovering persons to learn to live a more easeful life without the use of drugs and alcohol.

 

Sources:

http://www.apa.org/monitor/2008/06/genes-addict.aspx

** Second reference in Coping Skills section:

Prescott, C. A., & Kendler, K. S., Genetic and environmental contributions to alcohol abuse and dependence in a population-based sample of male twins. Am J Psychiatry, 1999. 156(1): p. 34-40.