It is commonly thought that people use drugs and alcohol solely because they enjoy the high and other pleasurable feelings they get from doing so. But while some people use substances for this reason, there usually is more to the story. In many cases, substance use happens for various reasons, such as peer pressure or wanting to self-medicate against the symptoms of a mental illness. 

Still, no matter the reason, not everyone who uses drugs and alcohol will become physically or psychologically dependent on them. Some who do, however, are predisposed to substance addiction due to genetic makeup and other factors. Studies examining whether substance abuse is hereditary or able to be passed down in families continue. 

However, the short answer is while genetics can make someone vulnerable to substance use, and while it is an important factor when it comes to substance abuse, it is not the only or determining factor that explains why someone struggles with substance addiction.

Defining What Addiction Is

Addiction is widely recognized as a chronic illness that permanently changes how the brain functions. In some cases, frequent substance use can change the actual structure of the brain. These changes often mean users will struggle with quitting their substance use, even if they genuinely wish to stop. One telltale sign that someone is addicted to a substance is they will not be able to stop using the substances despite the consequences. Consequences can include making a health condition worse or putting oneself in a situation where they will likely meet an unfavorable outcome. They also will experience changes in their thinking and behavior as a result of their substance use. 

They will struggle with hard-to-ignore cravings because parts of the brain have become rewired to make them think using addictive substances is something they have to do to survive. 

List of Common Addictive Substances

Substance-related disorders can come from the use of 10 classes of drugs that are outlined in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). This manual is the guide that medical and mental health professionals use to determine if a patient has a substance use disorder. The classes of drugs are:

  • Alcohol
  • Caffeine
  • Cannabis
  • Hallucinogens (PHP, LSD)
  • Inhalants
  • Opioids
  • Sedatives
  • Hypnotics (anxiolytics)
  • Stimulants (cocaine, amphetamine-type substances)
  • Tobacco; and
  • Other or unknown substances

Criteria Used to Determine if Someone Has a Substance Disorder

Criteria outlined in the DSM-5 help professionals recognize the behaviors and emotional signs and symptoms of a substance use problem. Among the criteria are the following:

  • Using a substance in larger amounts or for longer periods than intended
  • Experiencing strong, invasive cravings for drugs or alcohol
  • Finding it difficult to function without using substances
  • Finding it hard to quit despite wanting to or failed previous attempts
  • Spending a lot of time trying to obtain the substance
  • Failing to meet work, school, or other personal obligations due to substance use
  • Continuing to use substances despite the consequences
  • Replacing social, occupational, or recreational activities with substance use
  • Using the substance regularly in risky situations
  • Experiencing physical withdrawal symptoms when drug or alcohol use is stopped or reduced

It is recommended that you or your loved one get an official diagnosis from a professional who consults the DSM-5 when assessing your condition. This helps ensure that you will receive confirmation for the right condition as well as the proper treatment for it. Still, if you’re not sure if it’s too soon to seek an official diagnosis, you can take a look at the list below, which can help you figure out if getting help is the next step.

Signs a Loved One Could Be Struggling with Substance Abuse, Addiction

Addiction is characterized by physical, behavioral, and psychological signs. If you notice any of the following, you or your loved one could have a substance use disorder.

The physical signs of addiction include:

  • Appetite and/or sleep changes
  • Unkempt appearance (bloodshot eyes, dilated pupils) 
  • Poor hygiene
  • Unexplained weight loss or weight gain
  • Runny nose or sniffling
  • Slurred or unclear speech
  • Shaking, tremors, or poor muscle coordination

Some of the most common behavioral signs include:

  • Increased isolation from others
  • Strained relationships with friends, family, colleagues
  • Hiding substance use
  • Trouble at work, school, or with the law
  • Poor or failing school or work performance
  • New friend groups, changes in social friends
  • Unexplained money shortages
  • Stealing money or valuables
  • Lack of control with drugs or alcohol
  • Higher tolerance for alcohol, drugs
  • Using drugs or alcohol in risky situations (such as drinking and driving)

Psychological signs of addiction include: 

  • Angry outbursts
  • Unexplained and sudden mood swings
  • Increasingly fearful, panicked, anxious, or paranoid 
  • Lethargy, lack of motivation
  • Unusual energy bursts
  • Irritability or agitation

If you or a loved one has experienced any of these due to using substances, you are in the stages of developing an addiction. Consider getting professional help to help you address your substance use disorder with effective treatment at an accredited facility. 

How Understanding Genetics Can Help Us Understand Addiction

Most people working to overcome substance addiction will spend the rest of their lives managing their triggers and actively maintaining their sobriety. Without professional treatment, some people won’t be able to stop using substances. If they do not receive such treatment, they risk having a relapse or an overdose, which can lead to permanent injury or death. 

The reasons people use, misuse, and abuse drugs and alcohol are unique to each person. They can be rooted in various circumstances or events, or they can be more likely to occur because of substance abuse in a person’s family history or their environment and upbringing. Whether it is inherited or brought on by one’s genetics just depends on the person. Often, it can be a complex matter to pinpoint exactly what causes someone to use.

Learning the role genetics plays in addiction can help identify who is vulnerable to substance addiction and inform the best practices for helping people with this challenge. Looking at the role one’s family has had in their development is also a critical place to start when trying to understand their addiction struggles.

Studies Examine How Much Genetics Factors into Substance Use

Researchers have long studied the triggers that make people susceptible to substance use and addiction. The role one’s biological or genetic makeup plays is often under examination. It is often said that addiction can run in families, but that is only part of the story, as well. However, it is important to understand this important part of the puzzle.

Genetic predisposition is about determining a person’s likelihood of developing a condition or illness based on the genetic makeup they inherited from a parent, as MedlinePlus explains. Many studies have reviewed how genes play a role in someone’s likelihood of developing a substance abuse problem or addiction.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) highlights research that reviewed various family types, from siblings and adopted children to identical and fraternal twins, to assess family members’ risks of becoming addicted to substances. These studies conclude that a person’s chances of developing substance addiction based on their genetic makeup can occur up to 50 percent.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) also shares findings from a study that asserted genes are responsible for about 50 percent of the risk of developing alcohol use disorder (AUD). Still, while one can be genetically predisposed to substance abuse, it does not mean that the genes passed down cause a person’s addiction, as MedlinePlus notes.

It is important to note that just as genes can increase someone’s chances for substance use and addiction, they can also decrease someone’s risk of developing a drug or alcohol problem. This suggests then that while genes play a role in developing addiction, other factors come into play as well. 

Environment is believed to be one of these factors, and it, too, can determine if a person will go on to develop a substance use disorder (addiction). This could be the case if substance abuse and addiction took place regularly in a person’s family environment.

Addiction and Environment: What’s the Connection?

As scientists continue their research to establish a clear connection between biology and addiction, they also consider how epigenetics influences substance use and addiction. A close relationship between one’s genetics and the environment they grew up in or were exposed to can also determine if and how vulnerable they are to addiction. 

The study of how a person’s environment and behavior changes the functioning of their genes work is called epigenetics, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It advises that epigenetics changes throughout our lives due to development throughout our lives and how we respond to our environment and personal behaviors. “Unlike genetic changes, epigenetic changes are reversible and do not change your DNA sequence, but they can change how your body reads a DNA sequence,” the CDC says.

Some scientists and researchers believe epigenetics can help improve our understanding of addiction, particularly how our DNA makeup can be changed by other factors. 

The website “What Is Epigenetics?” gives the example of how heavy substance use and dependence can change the chemical makeup of particular genes that can protect a person from developing an addiction. It highlights a study in which researchers at the University of California – San Francisco found that genetic structures that guard against alcoholism (AUD) do not recover fully after they are triggered by heavy alcohol use. This may be why 10 percent of people with AUD have the disorder, researchers found.

Another study examining how frequent and heavy cocaine use changes the shape of DNA in the brain’s reward center could also help develop tests that can detect addiction and how far along a person is in their addiction, What Is Epigenetics? says.

Other Benefits of Epigenetics

Understanding epigenetic changes can also help us understand how a person’s substance use can influence or affect their children since changes in one’s genetic makeup can be passed down to their young. Epigenetics can also help a person seek out the best treatment options for them as they work through their substance use disorder.

How a Family Environment Can Lead to Substance Abuse

Since environment can play a critical role in addiction, here are some ways the family environment can expose a person to drug and alcohol use, particularly in their younger years.

    • Home/family life: If a person’s parent or sibling uses or abuses alcohol and/or drugs, their risk of developing an SUD is higher. If there is little to no parental supervision or support in the home, or if there is abuse in the home, children who grow up in that environment are also at a higher risk of developing an addiction. Strained parent-child relationships and divorced parents are also factors. 
  • Accessibility and availability: Children who can easily access alcohol or drugs at home, school, or in their community can also develop a higher risk of developing an addiction.
  • Friends and peers: As mentioned earlier, peer pressure can also play a role in someone’s decision to use addictive substances. Who we choose to have in our social circles can influence our behavior. If a person hangs out with someone who uses or abuses substances, there’s a greater chance they will, too. 

All of these external factors can be passed down to a person, influencing their decision about substance use and abuse and raising their chances of developing an addiction if they decide to use substances. 

However, exposing young children or young people to situations in their family environment is not a matter of genes or heredity. Children often model what they see. If they see an adult or other family member engaging in substance use and other behaviors, they could grow up and do the same things.

If alcohol or drug use is glamorized in the media that young children watch, they can also get the impression that using these substances is normal and OK to do. Substance use that takes place in one’s early life can lead to problematic substance use later.

Mental Illness That Runs in Families Can Lead to Substance Abuse

Mental illnesses that run in families can also play a role in whether someone uses substances. Many people, whether knowingly or unknowingly, use alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, and other substances to cope with anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress, and other mental health disorders. If family members often turn to these substances, this can prompt other people growing up in these environments to do the same thing.

Mental health disorders also cause disruption at home and in families that can also cause emotional and mental instability. Even if a person does not use substances as others in their family did, they could develop coping mechanisms as a result of living in and around dysfunctional environments. This is one main reason why addiction is often called the “family disease.” Everyone in the family unit can be affected by the negative effects of addiction.

This is also one reason why family therapy is recommended as part of addiction recovery for the person who is getting professional help for a substance problem and the members of their family who have been adversely affected by their substance use. Strained relationships, hurt feelings, and misdeeds are often part of situations in which substance addiction has affected the family unit.

Why the Family Matters When Addressing Addiction

The role of the family is very important in helping a loved one work through their addiction. A support system can help give a person in recovery the motivation they need to see their program through to the end. Family therapy is also essential in helping family members address their issues as well. It will take time, patience, effort, and a lot of work to move past the painful pull of addiction. 

Anyone who has been affected by a loved one’s addiction can participate in family therapy, including:

  • Parents
  • Foster parents/foster children
  • Spouses or partners
  • In-laws
  • Siblings
  • Children (older and younger)
  • Family friends
  • Mentors
  • Blended family members
  • Extended family members
  • Godparents/godchildren

Therapies for families in addiction recovery encourage open communication, empathy, and understanding. It also gives family members the opportunity to educate themselves on what addiction is and how it occurs. The person undergoing treatment gets to hear how their substance use and behavior affected their loved ones, and their loved ones get to hear how their actions or situations in the family or in the household affected their addicted family member. 

Therapy also makes it easier for families to talk to one another. It also helps them learn new ways to communicate and identify what works for them. Sessions can cover the new tools and strategies families will need to support their loved one and establish new boundaries once the addicted family member completes treatment. Everyone may be asked to complete homework assignments or participate in activities together to encourage healing and a pathway forward.

Common therapies used to help families through addiction include:

Structural family therapy. This therapy, developed in the 1960s, takes the family system into account when it comes to identifying and resolving issues between family members. The social interactions between members and how they respond to one another are examined. The approach can help families address the strengths they collectively have in solving their issues, establishing boundaries, and finding ways to maintain stability and balance in their relationships with one another.

Narrative therapy. Narrative therapy differs from structural therapy because each person in the family unit is treated as an individual and encouraged to tell their own stories through their own thoughts and feelings. This can be especially helpful to people who have experienced feeling lost while dealing with a loved one’s addiction. Narrative therapy can help them find their voice and observe their own experiences as they work through therapy to help themselves and their family member going through treatment.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This popular therapy helps everyone identify their own moods, thoughts, behaviors, and situations that trigger them to act a certain way that can lead them down the wrong path. CBT teaches people to effectively redirect these thoughts and feelings with healthy alternatives that lead to a desirable outcome.

Get Help for Addiction Today

Whether your addiction started due to your genetics or the environment you grew up in or have been around, you must get help for a substance addiction that could derail your health, dreams, and life.

The Palm Beach Institute in West Palm Beach, Florida, has served thousands with treatment they can trust for more than 50 years. We aim to help everyone who comes through our doors address their addiction head-on so they can have the new start in life that they deserve.

We also offer and encourage family therapy at our facility. We understand the role of the family in one’s recovery and how critical it is that a person’s support network is there to help them achieve the motivation and stability they need to work toward overcoming substance misuse. We offer several levels of care to accommodate people wherever they are in their recovery journey. You can start here with medical detox to safely withdraw from a substance before starting your treatment program in either a residential inpatient setting or a partial hospitalization setting. You can also receive intensive outpatient or outpatient treatment services here, as well.

We can assess your needs with an evaluation and help you figure out your next treatment steps. Your unique treatment program will address all of your needs. We do not use cookie-cutter recovery programs. Your treatment will be tailored to you and adjusted as your needs change. You also will get personalized attention from licensed clinicians as we keep our clinician-to-client ratios low. This ensures that your concerns are addressed and that you have an active role in your recovery program.

Call us today to learn more about our programs and how we can help you. We look forward to hearing how we can get your loved one on the path to sobriety as well as how we can help your family heal from addiction.

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