Risk Factors for Addiction
We all know that many people can drink, or gamble, or play computer games and never become addicted, while others do. So what is it that makes some people develop an addiction while others don’t? It doesn’t seem fair, and it often isn’t. Science has not yet identified the causes of addiction, but certain predisposing factors that increase a person’s risk of developing addiction, are already known. This is very useful information for everyone to know. If you know you might be at increased risk, you can take extra care to avoid, or moderate, your exposure to situations or behavior that might lead you down that path to addiction.
The Main Addiction Risk Factors
- the genetics you might have inherited from your parents or grandparents – this is probably the strongest of all potential risk factors
- a parent with an addiction – because close exposure to addiction itself, is added to the inherited genetic risk
- easy access to the desired substance or activity
- your social environment
- peer pressure
- repeated exposure to potentially addictive behaviour - drinking, gambling, substance abuse, computer games, porn and others
- your early childhood experiences – if you’ve experienced trauma of any sort, either physical or psychological
However, there are some things that don’t affect your risk of addiction:
It makes no difference if you are male or female, brainy or dumb, rich or poor – all sorts of people develop addictions. Being smart, or rich, does not change anything except your increased ability to fund your addiction. And it doesn’t matter if the activity, or substance involved, is legal or illegal – being legal does not mean you won’t develop an addiction. Alcohol and smoking are prime examples.
The question of having easy access is important. If you have easy access to a substance or activity that carries the risk of addiction, there’s an increased likelihood that you will try it out. Easy access also gives you the opportunity to continue with the activity, once started. Repeating the activity increases the risks of you continuing to do it as well – it becomes a habit. Frequently repeating the activity over time will also increase the risk of developing an addiction.
It’s obvious if you think about it. If you pass a venue with poker machines every day – or a betting shop or casino, the chances are high that one day, you will want to ‘see what it’s all about’. And the venue is there everyday. You can’t change that. If it’s also open 24 hours a day, you are even more likely to ‘just drop in’ on a regular basis. It’s exactly the same with outlets selling alcohol or cigarettes.
If it is also ‘affordable’ on whatever income you have, that will probably also increase your consumption. That is why reducing opening hours, hiding cigarettes under the counter and increasing prices, all help to reduce drinking and smoking rates in the general population.
In a similar way, if you live in a neighborhood where drugs are easily available, you and your family are exposed to increased risk of substance abuse. If these drugs are also affordable, that increases the risk a well. Add peer pressure into the mix, and you can easily see how young people can get hooked into an addiction before they fully realise what is happening to them. Unfortunately, if you live in such a local environment, the chances of you being able to afford to move somewhere else, are limited. If that is the case, that’s a risk factor you probably can’t change.
Peer Pressure – Choose your Friends Wisely
Choosing your friends is not always easy. Peer pressure is a really powerful influence over everyone’s behaviour – not just young people. If you mix with a crowd who are regular drinkers, or smoke, gamble or take drugs, your exposure to this potentially addictive activity is obviously increased. This adds to your own risk of developing an addiction. Added to that, if your friends are themselves developing an addiction, they will almost always try to get you to join them in that activity.
They don’t do this because they want you to ‘enjoy’ the ‘pleasure’ of that activity. They do it because it makes them feel better about themselves. If you try to resist their push to get you involved, they will often try to ridicule and shame you, in order to pressure you do what they want. Don’t be fooled.
There’s an old saying that goes, ‘Misery loves company’ and this is also true with addiction. Maybe someone you know wants you to rob a store with them, or start selling drugs with them, or go to the pub every night and binge drink until you’re senseless. ‘Come on”, they say, “Are you scared or something?” Or they jeer and taunt, saying, “It’s only one more drink, can’t you hold your liquor??’ Very often, their mates will join in with the taunting as well.
This is powerful pressure to try to resist! But, if you can see this behavior for what it is, you can see how pathetic they really are. They are trying to force you, and shame you, into doing what they do, because they haven’t got the guts to do it on their own. They are only trying to pressure you, because they want ‘backup’, and what feels to them, like moral reinforcement for their own risky behaviour. It’s a form of bullying. Don’t let them do that to you – or any of your friends.
It’s probably not wise to call them out on it – in some situations that could put you at risk of physical harm. But a firm and determined refusal to do what they want you to do, will help you get out of that tricky situation. It’s not easy, but once you’ve successfully refused their efforts once, they probably won’t try that trick again. They might even secretly respect you all the more, because of your strength to resist them. But don’t expect them to admit it!
So, if you are surrounded by family and friends who actively encourage excessive shopping, drinking alcohol, gambling or over eating, and you are a person who already has predisposing risk factors for addiction, such as an inherited genetic risk, you might become addicted when a less susceptible person, might not.
What may start out as a friend encouraging you to have an occasional flutter, or a night playing the pokies, may turn out to be the start of a gambling addiction that soon becomes beyond your control. Forewarned is forearmed. Knowledge is a wonderful thing – but self-knowledge is even more valuable.
You could be mislead into thinking that because you have increased risk, it doesn’t matter what you do. Big mistake! You might think, ‘It’s my destiny to become addicted so there’s no point in doing anything to prevent it’. Of course that is the opposite of the truth. It’s also a convenient excuse that might ‘allow’ you to ‘justify’ what you already know is a problem for you.
Being honest with yourself is one of the hardest things to do, but it could save you from developing an addiction.
- Knowing what the risk factors for addiction are, allows you to know if you might be at increased risk
- If you know you might be at increased risk, you have to take extra care not to fall into the trap of addiction
- Don’t ‘experiment’ with drugs, or start going every night to the pub or play the poker machines ‘because everyone else does’
- You are not ‘everyone else’
- You can have control over what you do and the risks you take
- Anyone can develop an addiction – don’t let it happen to you
- Look after ‘your life’, and don’t throw away opportunity, just because you’ve made bad choices in your past
- If you already have a problem, honestly admit it to yourself, then get help for it before it ruins your life and your marriage
- Don’t expose your family to your untreated addiction, and increase their risks for developing an addiction
- Don’t be a bad example to your kids
- Don’t succumb to peer pressure to do what you know you should not do
- If possible, look out for your friends and family, and help them avoid unwise friends or risky activities
Even if other people in your family have an addiction, or everyone around you seems to be addicted to one thing or other, an understanding of the risks for developing an addiction can help you understand the need for you to avoid certain situations and risky behavior, and to choose your friends wisely.
And of course, some people develop addictions without any obvious predisposition at all. A predisposition just means that some people are more at risk than others.
There are no guarantees in this life
There is no certainty of susceptibility, or immunity, for anyone – only degrees of risk for Addiction in every person’s personal background and history.
Take care of yourself and those around you.
You only have one life – make the most of it.
See also Part 1 of Causes and Risk Factors for Addiction.