How Does Our Environment Have an Impact on Addiction?

At a time such as this, in the face of this global pandemic, many are asking the age-old question: “Is it nature or nurture that leads to addiction?” 

Given our current environment, and the shocking statistics that alcohol sales across the board have increased by 58%, it is difficult to avoid drawing conclusions about how this will affect individuals who perhaps were already struggling with their use. 

So, which is it, Nature or Nurture?

In this great debate about whether it is environmental or biological risk factors that play a more significant role in developing a substance use disorder or addiction, most researchers actually believe that it is often a combination of both.

Broken down by category, these contributing factors include: 

Biological Risk Factors

  • Genetic predisposition (if the biological family have/had substance use disorders and their genes are passed on)
  • Age of first use
  • Presence of mental health disorders or other brain characteristics like impulsivity, sensation seeking, etc.

Environmental Risk Factors:

  • Whether a parent or caregiver used substances around or with the child
  • Peer influences
  • Cultural and societal attitudes towards substances
  • Exposure to physical, emotional, or sexual abuse
  • Exposure to traumatic events

In an earlier blog, we explored the impact that one notable biological factor, the brain, has on addictive patterns. Today, we’ll explore its counterpart, the role that the environment has to play, and especially the intersection between these two important factors.

If my parents abused substances or had a mental health condition, does that mean I will too?

Not necessarily. Biological factors are important in that they ‘set the scene’ for the potential of addictive patterns to take root, but they do not cause addiction outright. They cause certain genes to be more likely to ‘turn on’ if certain environmental factors occur. 

For example, an individual whose parents had substance use disorders will likely be genetically predisposed to addiction, but that does not guarantee they will develop a substance use disorder. This is where the environmental factors play a role: if

the child grows up in a safe, loving environment and is not exposed to many of the environmental risks, they would be less likely to develop an addiction. On the other hand, exposure to some of the environmental risk factors would increase their likelihood of developing an addiction.

So there’s little hope I won’t turn to addiction if I’ve been exposed to both biological and environmental factors?

Again, not necessarily. If you have grown up in an addiction-riddled household but are aware of the precursors to addiction, and are able to effectively process the hurt you may feel by perceived or actual abandonment, there is a greater chance to avoid walking down the same path as your parents. In these cases, your sobriety is dependent on your ability to be resilient in the face of each adversity that life has thrown your way. 

For others who do not have a genetic predisposition, the same environmental factors may not trigger substance misuse. Ultimately, substance use disorders are complex and nuanced in their etiology and cannot be traced to a singular incident or gene.

What about our current cultural environment?

It is important to consider, however, whether if a national pandemic such as the one our country currently faces is experienced as ‘traumatic’ by countless individuals, how this will impact those among us who are genetically predisposed to turn to unhealthy means of coping. 

What we know about times of stress is that unless people are actively working to respond in a new way to the added stress, they will rely on their ‘old habits’ to carry them through a difficult time. As the saying goes, the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. This of course is in reference to those who live their lives on autopilot, not necessarily those who are actively seeking change. In fact, this is the biggest difference between these two groups of people- their goals and what sort of life they want for themselves. 

A recovery mindset

Someone with a goal of recovery in mind will recognize this disease as cunning, baffling, and powerful, and can see through the mind games and deceit. Even still, they are wise to set up and remain connected with their system of support and to hold onto the truths they learned in recovery. 

In this way, it is still not necessarily biological factors or environmental factors that guarantee that someone will fall into the trap of addiction. Both of these factors will absolutely need to be understood, processed, and overcome, but once someone has learned a new way of being through treatment and recovery, it is their dedication to the recovery lifestyle that will continue to carry them through. 

Transitional Living at The Haven

The sort of accountability available to recovery-seekers through The Haven’s Transitional Living Program is exactly the sort of opportunity that would help them to feel confident testing their recovery practices in a real-world environment. With more independence and autonomy, those in transitional living can practice facing stress and still making the choice that is going to support their recovery. Get connected with us today to learn how we can be supportive to you or your loved one in any stage of recovery!

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