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How Does Addiction Happen?

If you’re a parent or loved one of someone struggling with addiction or substance use disorder, you likely understand very well that addiction affects the entire family. Perhaps you’ve tried--unsuccessfully--to steer them toward treatment before, and worrying about their well-being has put a strain on your relationship and your well-being.


People who are reluctant to seek treatment for substance use disorder are usually in denial and tend to blame everyone but themselves. During what is often an emotional, challenging time, it’s so important to remember that your loved one’s struggle with substances is not your fault.


You may be wondering how you and your loved one got here. Addiction is not caused by one single thing. It’s not a sign of failure or lack of willpower. Instead, it’s caused by a combination of risk factors that increase a person’s chances of addiction or substance use disorder.


Risk factors for addiction can be separated into three distinct categories:



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Biological Risk Factors for Addiction

A person’s unique biology plays a significant role in their risk of becoming addicted to drugs or alcohol. Addiction can run in families, and having a family member who has dealt with addiction does, in fact, increase your risk of becoming addicted to drugs or alcohol. It’s estimated that genetic factors account for 40 to 60% of a person’s risk of addiction.


But genetics alone does not result in addiction. Just because addiction runs in your family doesn’t necessarily mean it will happen to you. If there are no other external factors present, genetic predisposition may never develop into addiction.


Environmental Risk Factors for Addiction

A person’s surroundings, including their home, school and work environments, are highly influential in the development of addiction. The more environmental risk factors a person is exposed to during childhood, the higher chance they have of abusing substances and developing an addiction later on. Environmental risk factors include:



Exposure to certain environmental risk factors can cause the genes to mutate in response to stress, a phenomenon known as epigenetics, which can lead to behavioral changes and substance abuse. In other words, a person’s tendency toward developing an addiction may never reveal itself unless specific environmental factors are present.


Developmental Risk Factors for Addiction

Genetic and environmental risk factors correlate with critical developmental stages in a person’s life and can increase the risk of addiction. There are a few major risk periods for drug abuse that occur during significant transitions in adolescence:



Using drugs at any age can lead to addiction, but the earlier drug use begins, the more likely it will progress into addiction. This is especially problematic during the teenage years when teens are exposed to peer pressure. The parts of the brain that control self-control, decision-making and judgment are still developing, so teens may be more vulnerable to partaking in risky behaviors, including experimentation with drugs or alcohol.


Addiction and the Pleasure Principle

Substance use alters brain structure and the way it functions by activating the brain’s reward center. Anything deemed pleasurable--whether it’s an addictive substance, money or a good meal--activates the brain’s reward center with a rapid dopamine rush that creates a strong sense of satisfaction.


Over time, brain receptors become overwhelmed, and the brain produces less dopamine or eliminates dopamine receptors. Now, it takes significantly more of substance to feel the same dopamine rush--also known as tolerance. The pleasure associated with a substance dwindles, but it doesn’t get rid of the memory of its desired effect and the desire to recreate it, which results in compulsive, addictive behavior.


Permanent Recovery Is Within Reach

Chalking addiction up to a single cause is flawed logic that is detrimental to people struggling with addiction or substance use disorder. Effective treatment employs a multi-pronged approach that identifies and addresses all of the complex, underlying causes of addiction.

At Hope by the Sea, we take a highly specialized approach to addiction treatment by working with clients one-on-one to develop a treatment plan that meets their unique clinical and financial needs. For more information, including insurance verification, contact our Admissions Department at 1-866-930-4673.

Each and every one of you have touched my heart and I feel so blessed to have found such a loving and supportive family in HBTS.

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Thank you so much for everything that you have done for me!! You have made me a totally different person and you have no idea how grateful I am for that.

- T.S.

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