A logical and scientific way of dealing with a problem is by trying to find the root cause of it and dealing with it on that level. This is also why many are looking to solve biological and neurological issues by seeing if there is a possible genetic origin. This is particularly true in studies done on substance abuse disorders, where researchers are looking into the question “is addiction genetic or environmental”.
To understand this further, there is a need to have a better understanding of what addiction is, and what it does to a person.
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What is Addiction?
Addiction is described as a chronic dysfunction of the brain that greatly affects the behavior of a person. Oftentimes, it affects the brain so much that it rewrites how a person perceives or interprets reward, motivation, and relevant memory.
The motivation part of it has to do with specific triggers that often prompt a person to engage in substance abuse. When a person encounters any personal trigger, such as a stressful event, this becomes the motivation for the person to take drugs or alcohol.
Memory also plays a part in it, but not so much as in actively remembering something. It is more related to the person remembering the sensation they feel when under the influence of whatever they are addicted to. This is not brought on by an active attempt to access one’s memory, it is more of a remembered sensation brought on by a craving to use substances.
The reward is the actual sensation felt when the person is finally able to feel the effects of the substance. Most substances produce a euphoric effect in people, and for some, particularly those who experience chronic pain, this is the only time they feel a good sensation.
Which Plays a Bigger Part in Addiction: Genetics or Environment?
Multiple studies have been done on the determination of whether genetics or environment is to blame for a person’s development of addiction. For different people and sexuality, it could be either of these two factors, or a combination of both, as there is also the consideration of where they are exposed to substance abuse, who they see doing it, and what relevance these people have on the person.
Psychological studies have been done on people who claim that they “inherited” their addiction from one or both of their parents. The behavior of parents is largely held to be the most influential factor in the psychological and behavioral development of a person.
This has been proven in cases where a criminal profiler examines the behavioral pattern of a suspect, often attributing specific traits and habits to parental influence. This could also be seen as something similar to people exposed to the drug or alcohol habits of their parents. As much as people would like to say that they are not defined by their past, behavioral influences that a child is exposed to during their formative years often become indelible markers for what they could become.
In this aspect, the tendency to develop a drug or alcohol habit becomes both genetic, as they could have a predisposition due to a parent who has the habit, and also environmental, as they are constantly exposed to the parent who has the habit as they grow up.
Most people are highly impressionable, regardless of how strong-willed they claim to be. This is because will and determination are still based on a person’s current mental state. A person who is held to be iron-willed could still be exposed to immense personal tragedy and emotional distress and their ability to engage in rational thought become adversely affected.
Some people are fortunate enough to have the appropriate coping skills that help them mitigate their emotional response to such great tragedies. The ability of a person to vent their emotions also plays a large part in how they are influenced by tremendous emotional and psychological pressure. It is not uncommon for those who make a habit of “bottling up” their intense emotions to suddenly erupt when they have finally crossed their threshold.
Other people react differently when they reach their personal threshold. Instead of erupting in an emotional outburst, they seek any form of escape from the thoughts and emotions they have. This is why many choose to “drown their sorrows” in alcohol or some other substance, as it affords them an altered state of mind where they don’t feel as pressured as when they are sober.
Apart from being exposed to addicted parents or relatives during the formative years and being in an environment where using substances is almost ensured, there are also many people who developed a substance abuse disorder because of unaddressed trauma.
This trauma could be an intense emotionally scarring event at some point in life, or it could be a physical event that caused great injury causing the person to suffer mentally and emotionally as well.
Perhaps one of the best examples of trauma paving the way to an addiction is when people exposed to combat situation takes to binge drinking, or even drug use, to help them cope with the fallout of their experience. This is proven by the statistics taken from American forces who saw combat:
- 11-20 out of every 100 Veterans who served in Operations Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Enduring Freedom (OEF) have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- At least 12 out of every 100 Gulf War Veterans have PTSD
- An estimated 30 out of every 100 Vietnam Veterans have had PTSD at some point in their lives
The US Department of Veteran Affairs revealed that at least 2 out of every 10 veterans with PTSD also have a substance abuse disorder. This means that a large number of war veterans also have a co-occurring issue, as they struggle with both a substance abuse disorder and PTSD.
Trauma, however, is not limited to people who were exposed to combat situations. There is also a large number of people who deal with trauma stemming from non-combat situations, including:
- Domestic violence
- Childhood trauma
- Sexual abuse
- Physical assault stemming from a crime
- Major accident
Other than these factors, there are also people who simply have a very low threshold when it comes to dealing with stress or trauma. It takes relatively little to push these people beyond their point of being able to handle things rationally.
How is Addiction Brought by Genetics or Environment Treated?
Regardless of the origin or cause of the substance dependency, there are specific treatments that have proven thus far to be effective in helping people kick the habit, and also help them to achieve lasting sobriety.
Medical detox is always the first step in any recovery and rehabilitation process. A person needs to stop taking the substance he or she is addicted to before any kind of recovery could begin. Stopping is never easy, and for some people, it could even be a source of a medical emergency. This is why a medical detox should always be done in an institution or facility that is specifically equipped to handle it.
This is important to know because there are cases where some people try to detox right at home. It is not uncommon for people to have some complications during detox as their body reacts to the sudden end of substance use. In other cases, the withdrawal symptoms become so severe that the person requires medical aid just to deal with the agony.
Others who try to detox outside of a rehab or detox facility simply fail and go right back to using their substances. There is a procedure done in medical detox that ensures safety and efficacy in the process of ending substance use.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Following a successful medical detox, the therapist proceeds with finding a suitable therapy form for the patient, as there are different treatments that are more suited to specific conditions. One of the more common treatment types is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) as it could be used in treating many forms of dependencies.
CBT is particularly effective in dealing with most dependencies because it helps the patient identify the harmful behavioral patterns associated with their dependency. This is important to know because most people with a substance abuse disorder began their descent into full-blown addiction when they got into denial about it. By not identifying the problem for what it really is, which is a rapidly growing dependence on a substance, it got to the point where they had no control over it anymore.
Dialectical Behavior Therapy
Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) is largely based on CBT but differs in that it focuses on the validation and acceptance of uncomfortable thoughts and feelings arising or attributed to substance dependency. The nature of DBT also makes it ideal for dealing with mental disorders as well, including chronic suicidal tendencies, depression, and anxiety disorders.
DBT makes use of the CBT practice of identifying the issue so that the patient becomes mindful of everything that has to do with the issue, including the triggers that bring it about. With the awareness taught by DBT, the patient is better able to recognize the signs related to the issue, and this recognition gives them ample time to react in a much better fashion.
Let Free By The Sea Help You Get Your Life Back on Track
Many think they know what addiction really is, and how best to deal with it. Sadly, this is not true, which is why substance abuse is as difficult to deal with as it is. Our experience in helping people back to recovery has taught us a lot about substance abuse disorders.
We use what we learned to help even more people, as we here at Free By The Sea believe that everyone deserves to get better, even if they don’t know it yet. We prefer to focus on the right questions, whether it’s “is drug addiction genetic or environmental” or “what emotions push a person to substance abuse” so that we can arrive at much better answers to help those who need it. Contact us today to begin.
Dr. Richard Crabbe joined our team in 2019 as our psychiatrist and medical director. He attended the University of Ghana Medical School where he became a Medical Doctor in 1977. From 1978 through 1984, he was a medical officer in the Ghana Navy and provided a variety of services from general medicine to surgeries. He received his Certificate in General Psychology from the American Board of Psychology and Neurology in 2002.