Some people who use drugs get addicted while others do not. Do we chock this reality up to the fact that life can be unfair? As it turns out, there is a scientific explanation.
Increasingly, research shows that addicts’ brains are fundamentally different from non-addicts.
Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans show that the function of certain networks may make some people more impulsive and vulnerable to drug abuse than others. We also know that addiction runs in families.
In a study that compared the brains of cocaine addicts with the brains of their non-addicted siblings, researchers at Cambridge University found that both had abnormalities in a region of the brain that controls behavior, suggesting that some people are “hard-wired” for addiction.
Factors for Addiction
So does your biology mean you’re destined to become an addict? Not necessarily. In the Cambridge study, siblings who shared the same brain abnormalities turned out dramatically different. This is because biology is just one component of addiction. Like other chronic diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease, there is also a behavioral component to addiction. Thus, a genetic predisposition to addiction does not spell destiny. Your upbringing, personality, life experiences and other factors all contribute to your likelihood of becoming addicted.
Although science is a long way off from performing brain scans of every individual to determine their vulnerability to addiction, you can make a general assessment of your risk. Do you have a blood relative, such as a parent or sibling, who has struggled with addiction? Did you grow up with a parent who was addicted, abusive or uninvolved? Do you have depression, anxiety or other mental health issues?
Steps to Stave Off Addiction
You can’t control who your parents are, the choices they made or the community you grew up in, but you are not powerless. Here are a few precautions you can take to avoid a lifelong struggle with addiction:
1. Just Say No – The most obvious way to prevent addiction is to avoid drugs and alcohol. But it’s not always that simple. Because human beings are wired for pleasure-seeking and will always pursue quick relief from pain, the “just say no” approach has failed in the past and will continue to be only a partial answer to addiction prevention.
If you decide to drink alcohol, do so moderately (no more than one drink a day for most women and no more than two drinks a day for most men, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). While most people may be able to drink moderately without difficulty, those with a family history of addiction or other risk factors may find that their habit quickly escalates to heavy drinking or alcoholism.
2. Delay Alcohol Use – Research shows that alcoholism is more prevalent among those who begin drinking at an early age. Delaying alcohol use until age 21 or later may reduce the risk of alcohol-related problems in adulthood.
3. Limit Negative Influences – Both adolescents and adults are heavily influenced by their peers and their desire to fit in. Associating with people who abuse drugs or alcohol or who have accepting attitudes toward substance abuse increases the likelihood of drug abuse.
4. Manage Stress – Stress is one of the most commonly cited reasons for substance abuse. Rather than spiraling out of control, take steps to manage your stress before problems get out of hand. Exercise, meditate, or talk to a friend, spiritual advisor or therapist – whatever helps you unwind without relying on the temporary fix of drugs or alcohol.
5. Build Strong Relationships – A strong support system can be a strong protective factor against addiction. Whether you turn to friends, family, the community or a higher power, finding someone you can lean on can help you work through stress and other emotions without a chemical escape.
6. Know the Warning Signs – If you choose to drink or use drugs, stay alert to the signs of addiction, including withdrawal symptoms, tolerance, losing control, changes in diet, sleep or behavior patterns, abandoning activities you used to enjoy, and negative consequences related to your drinking. When in doubt, ask a therapist, rehab center or healthcare provider for an assessment to determine whether your drug use has become a problem.
7. Set and Work Toward Goals – People who set realistic goals and actively work toward them are less likely to get sidetracked by drugs or alcohol than people who feel they are not achieving their goals or don’t have anything to work toward.
8. Get Treatment for Mental Illness – Substance abuse is strongly correlated with mental illness. If you struggle with depression, anxiety, a personality disorder or another psychiatric condition, seek help from a mental health professional rather than self-medicating with drugs or alcohol.
Even if your biology pulls you in one direction, you can alter your course by taking steps to safeguard yourself against addiction. Genetics account for an estimated 40 to 60 percent of the risk for addiction. That leaves another 40 to 60 percent for environmental and social factors that may be well within your control.