Why Do Some People Become Addicted While Others Don’t?

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woman struggling with addiction with pills spilled on table

Let’s suppose that two people consume alcohol at the same rate over time. One person may become addicted while the other does not, but why? The simple answer to this question is: there is no straightforward answer. Although this is frustrating, let’s unpack this response. Technological progress and insights from neurobiology have revealed addiction as a nuanced phenomenon. While there’s no definitive explanation, certain clues offer insight into who might be more susceptible to addiction.

Why Do We Care if Addiction Affects People Differently?

It’s natural for us as human beings to be curious about the underlying causes of health issues so we can treat—and when possible, prevent—negative outcomes. With new studies in addiction literature being published all the time, the way we conceptualize and understand the condition needs to be adaptive and flexible in order to remain relevant.

For example, many people have accepted the theory that addiction is a disease. However, one area being explored is the association between addiction and attachment theory. If a child grew up with caregivers who gave inconsistent care or were neglectful toward their needs, they might develop an insecure attachment. As they mature, the adult who never experienced healthy connection might cope with their feelings of loneliness, emptiness, and discomfort by self-medicating. But this is a topic for another time.

Different theories come and go as our collective understanding of addiction becomes more comprehensive and integrative. Scholars who study addiction have taken particular interest in etiology—the study of cause, or manner of causation of a disease or condition—as this dictates the direction of future treatment methods, allowing us to effectively reach more people in need.

What Does Current Research Tell Us?

There are many unknowns as to why some people are adversely impacted by their drinking or drug use and become addicted while others do not. However, what we do know is this: some people have a greater likelihood of developing substance use disorders than others. The most cutting-edge theory (based on a bio-psycho-socio-spiritual approach and knowledge from neuroscience and attachment theory) finds that individuals with dysregulated brains and social capacities are most vulnerable to this condition.

What Increases the Likelihood of Addiction?

Genetics are still the number one predictor of addiction, followed by early onset of first use. Data findings have demonstrated the validity of these factors, but there are others that treatment professionals must also consider when diagnosing substance use disorders. Aside from a family history of addiction and the age a person began using drugs or alcohol, they have to look at the complex interaction between a combination of biological, psychological, social, and spiritual determinants, including:

  • Environment and attachments: Those who grow up around peers who use drugs and alcohol are more likely to begin using themselves. This is especially true for children of alcoholic parents who repeat behaviors they observed in their childhood. Positive attachment experiences in childhood, characterized by secure and supportive relationships, can buffer against addiction risk by fostering resilience and healthy coping mechanisms.
  • Potency of substance(s) used: Highly potent drugs can cause rapid changes in brain chemistry, reinforcing addictive patterns and increasing the likelihood of dependence. Certain drugs, such as fentanyl and heroin, are stronger and more addictive than others. A study by researchers at the Mayo Clinic and Yale University found that deaths from fentanyl alone nearly tripled from 2016 to 2021. The other part to consider here is if multiple substances are being consumed – the effects can often be unpredictable.
  • How substance is consumed: Injecting or snorting a drug produces a greater dopamine rush, making a user that much more likely to become dependent on it.
  • Trauma and Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs): Traumatic events during childhood, known as ACEs, can have lasting effects on mental health and behavior. Children exposed to abuse, neglect, parental substance use, or household dysfunction are at a higher risk of using substances as a coping mechanism later in life. Those who develop post-traumatic stress disorder may use drugs or alcohol to numb emotional pain as well.
  • Mental health: Those already struggling with mood disorders, such as anxiety and depression, may be more likely to seek out unhealthy coping mechanisms for dealing with stress, including drinking or using drugs. While substances might seem like a quick fix to dealing with mental health conditions, using drugs or alcohol can often exacerbate those very symptoms you are trying to get away from.

What Can You Do?

Recognizing the above factors may give insight into why some people become addicted and others don’t. However, just because one of the above factors applies to you, does not mean you are certain to develop a substance use disorder.

If you do notice signs of addiction in yourself or a loved one – such as using more and more of the substance, mood swings, or lying – acknowledging there may be a problem is a great first step. It’s important to educate yourself about addiction, mental and physical effects, and available resources for support and treatment.

Whether you are struggling or not, it is a good idea for everyone in the family system to get educated on addiction. Encourage the person struggling to speak to a healthcare professional, counselor, or addiction specialist. Treatment options may include individual therapy, support groups, medication-assisted treatment, and rehabilitation programs tailored to address the person’s specific needs.

Additional Self-Care Resources

You can prioritize your mental health at any time; there’s no need to wait until you’re in distress or deep in your addiction. Addiction Recovery Coach Katherine Reynolds shares a few tips you can practice from anywhere:

Mindful Breathing Routine

One effective way to care for your mental well-being is to engage in a mindful breathing routine. Find a quiet space, sit comfortably, and focus on your breath. Inhale deeply for a count of four, hold for four, and exhale for four. This simple practice helps regulate your nervous system, promoting relaxation and reducing stress levels. You can also add some light stretching to this routine.

Nature Walk or Green Break

Take a short walk in nature or find an outdoor space to unwind. Spending time outdoors, surrounded by natural elements, has been proven to lower cortisol levels and improve mood. Whether it’s a park, garden, or just a quiet street with trees, reconnecting with nature can provide a refreshing break from the demands of daily life such as work or school.

Digital Detox and Hobby Time

Decompress by disconnecting from digital devices. Engage in a hobby or activity you enjoy, such as reading, painting, or playing a musical instrument. This intentional break from screens allows your mind to shift focus and promotes a healthy work-life balance. It’s a great way to recharge your mental batteries.

Expressive Writing Session

Set aside time for expressive writing to release pent-up emotions and thoughts. Grab a journal and jot down your feelings, concerns, or highlights of the day. This practice can serve as a therapeutic outlet, helping you process and let go of stressors, ultimately promoting a more relaxed state of mind. You can also choose to focus on goals or accomplishments in your writing.

Quick High-Intensity Exercise Burst

Incorporate a brief high-intensity workout into your routine to release endorphins and boost energy levels. This could be a quick session of jumping jacks, push-ups, or a short burst of cardio. Physical activity not only contributes to overall well-being but also helps clear your mind, leaving you feeling invigorated post-work.

It is important to note that nobody is fully immune to addiction, though a person’s addictive tendencies may vary in terms of intensity and pervasiveness based on the risk factors mentioned above. Like many other chronic diseases, some people will be more at risk of becoming addicted than others. There is no definitive way of knowing. Therefore, everyone must examine their risk factors and take precautions to prevent the onset or development of substance use disorders.

If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, Mountainside can help.
Click here or call (888) 833-4676 to speak with one of our addiction treatment experts.