Everyone is predisposed to certain things. For example, some individuals have a melancholy temperament, making them more vulnerable to depression than their more naturally upbeat peers. Another example is those who tend to be “high strung,” making it more difficult to stay calm under stress and keep anxiety at bay. Unfortunately, there are many individuals who are predisposed to developing an addiction to a substance or activity, such as alcohol, stimulants or gambling. Of course, a predisposition is only part of the picture when it comes to your risk of developing an addiction. While it certainly increases your risk, it doesn’t make its occurrence inevitable. On top of that, there are almost always other factors that come into play – and each of these can influence the direction the scales are tipped. The good news is that armed with self-awareness you can do many things to reduce your risk for addiction and keep the scales tipped in your favor. The key is identifying and understanding your own particular vulnerabilities and taking a proactive rather than passive stance.
Identifying Your Risk Factors
In order to be proactive, it’s important to know the things that increase your risk for addiction. They include:
Research has shown that the risk for addiction is increased if there’s a family history of it. This is largely due to two factors: genetics and learned behavior. Unfortunately, you don’t get to choose your family. You can’t change your DNA or push a “delete button” to erase everything you were exposed to while growing up. Some research suggests that certain genes are associated with specific addictions, such as alcoholism or addictive tendencies. For example, researchers at Yale University found a gene in white females of European descent that showed a strong link to dependence on various substances, including alcohol and cocaine. Of course, it’s important to note that, thus far, a specific gene (or constellation of genes) hasn’t been discovered that indicates people will develop an addiction, in the way that some genes can predict certain medical conditions. Family history also impacts your risk because your parents and older siblings were likely your strongest role models growing up. If your mother drank every night to “take the edge off” or you learned from your father that there was nothing like the thrill of placing bets, you had some pretty strong influences with regard to addictive behaviors. Does your family history of addiction mean you drew the short straw, and therefore you might as well follow suit because “it’s in my blood” or “that’s all I know”? Absolutely not. But it does mean that the risk is definitely there, so being aware of it is crucial if you want to stay on an addiction-free life trajectory.
It’s a well-established fact that if you have a psychiatric disorder, your risk of addiction (particularly to alcohol, drugs or other substances) is greater. There are a few reasons for this. First, any mental health symptoms cause stress and make life more challenging. It is human nature to want to alleviate pain (whether emotional or physical), and self-medicating with something like alcohol can be very tempting. If drinking or using helps, then you’re more likely to do it again and again, which can lead to dependence and addiction. Another reason the presence of a psychiatric disorder, such as PTSD or depression, makes you more vulnerable is because most disorders affect the way you think. For example, if you’re in the throes of depression or feeling anxious all the time, you’re not thinking rationally. Your ability to make good decisions is going to be impaired at least to some degree – and perhaps totally – depending on the particular symptoms (for example, if you’re having a manic or psychotic episode). When you’re not thinking clearly, you’re more likely to use substances or engage in other potentially addictive activities.
Any history of trauma makes you more vulnerable to developing an addiction. This is especially true if you experienced trauma during your childhood, such as severe neglect or physical or sexual abuse. But even a recent or remote trauma in adulthood makes you more vulnerable. Traumatic events devastate your sense of security, safety and stability. As humans, we thrive on predictability. Trauma is typically chaotic and always frightening, making the world an unreliable and dangerous place. While many people recover from acute traumatic events, chronic trauma such as ongoing physical abuse during childhood can be much more difficult to heal. The emotional pain that stems from trauma can make any potentially numbing substance or activity very difficult to resist. It’s no surprise that a high percentage of alcoholics and drug addicts have a history of trauma.
Lack of support
Having a good support network is crucial to emotional well-being, especially during times of stress or when a significant loss occurs. Those who have the best chance of getting through difficult times with the least amount of emotional scarring are the ones with a strong support network. Being surrounded by people who love you, care about you, believe in you and are there for you – through thick and thin – makes it much easier to manage life’s challenges than feeling or being completely alone. It also makes it a lot easier to believe in yourself. Your see, without a support network, you have nothing to lose. You also have no one to disappoint, and no one to be accountable to. This makes you a lot more vulnerable to engaging in high-risk behavior, such as binge drinking or shooting up with heroin. “Why not?” “Who cares?” “Who’ll notice if I end up dead?” Those are all typical thoughts of someone who lacks a support network. And those are perfect examples of the type of negative self-talk with which many addicts struggle. With people you care about in your life – who also care about you – you’re much more likely to choose healthier ways to deal with pain, loss and stress.
Easy access to addictive substances and activities
If your friends are regular or heavy drinkers, gamble regularly or use drugs, you’re much more likely to drink, gamble or use with them (and get drugs and alcohol or trips to the casino from them). Easy access increases your risk of addiction. And the more time you spend with those who engage in addictive behaviors, the more you’re going to be tempted to join them. Any resistance you may have had can quickly begin to crumble.
Personal history of abuse or addiction
If you have a history of substance abuse or drug or alcohol addiction, or any other type of addiction, your risk of relapsing or developing a new addiction to another substance is strong. It’s not uncommon for addicts, even those who have gone through addiction treatment, to transfer their addictive tendencies to something else down the road, especially under stress. Part of the reason for this is that addictive behavior fills a void. If that new void isn’t filled with something healthy, the itch to fill it with something will get progressively strong. Also, if the factors that contributed to the earlier addiction weren’t addressed and dealt with in treatment, you’ll be vulnerable to them again and again.
Poor social skills
Another factor that increases your risk for addiction is the lack of good social skills. For example, if you struggle with shyness or find it difficult to connect with others, you’ll likely experience a painful sense of isolation and loneliness – not to mention fragile self-esteem. These negative feelings can make mind-numbing and potentially addictive activities and substances appealing. Addictive behaviors can become an unhealthy way to self-medicate and fill a void in your life. Other poor social skills that may also increase your risk include impulsivity, difficulty managing your emotions, and aggressive behavior. These issues typically stem from problems in childhood. For example, if your parents were physically or emotionally absent much of the time, provided little to no nurturing, affection or love, or failed to set proper boundaries for you as a child, you weren’t really given much of a chance to develop healthy social skills. However, it’s never too late to develop them.
Reducing Your Risk
As you read through the paragraphs above, chances are you identified with at least one, and possibly several, of the addiction risk factors. Now, before you become discouraged and assume that you’re doomed to become a drug addict, compulsive gambler or alcoholic, take heart in knowing that you have more control over your life than you may realize. In fact, recognizing that you do have control and aren’t a victim is very powerful.
Make lifestyle changes.
One important positive step is making lifestyle changes. For example, if your support network is lacking, you can start finding ways to become more connected socially and within your community. There’s really no end to opportunities to connect with others. A few ideas include getting involved in a local church, volunteering for a cause that is important to you, joining a health club, joining a community athletic team, or joining a couple of local Meetup groups comprised of individuals who share some of your interests. Lifestyle changes also need to include being careful in terms of the people you choose to spend time with, such as friends and significant others. If any of them engage in addictive behaviors, you need to seriously consider the impact that has on you. The last thing you need is someone in your life who’s always pressuring you to join him or her in any behavior that could lead to an addiction.
Decrease your access and exposure.
If you have easy access or frequent exposure to alcohol, drugs or other potentially addictive substances or activities, do whatever you can to create more distance. You may need to move to a different location or considering changing jobs – both important and big decisions. But remember, these decisions can have a significant positive impact on your future.
Tackle negative thoughts and feelings.
Find a way to deal with the various emotional and psychological things that increase your risk of addiction. This includes unresolved issues related to past trauma, family of origin issues that make you vulnerable (e.g., if one of your parents was an alcoholic or emotionally detached) and, of course, any mental health issues. Working with an experienced therapist is really one of the best ways to tackle these underlying vulnerabilities. Therapy can help increase your self-awareness while also helping you learn ways to manage negative emotions in a healthy way. If working with a therapist isn’t an option, you might consider joining a support group or reading self-help books. Both can help you better understand yourself. A support group will also help bolster your support network.
Address any addiction history.
If you have a history of addiction, understanding the things that led you to become an addict, including triggers for relapse, should also be addressed if they haven’t already. While a therapist can help you with these, it might also be beneficial to work with someone who specializes in addiction treatment. The greater your self-awareness and the more effort you make to mitigate your risks of addiction, the more successful you will be at avoiding it all together, even if you have a lot of risk factors. Remember, a “risk factor” is not the same as a decree that something will inevitably happen to you. It is, however, an important piece of information to understand and address. No matter how great your risk factors for addiction, you can choose to be proactive, greatly reduce your risk and live an addiction-free life.