Millions of people around the world use drugs and/or alcohol on a daily basis. However, only a fraction of these people develop an addiction disorder.
In a recent study on UK drug addiction and abuse, it was found that approximately 3 million people aged 16 to 59 (in England and Wales alone) had taken illicit drugs (amphetamines, cocaine, cannabis, ecstasy, magic mushrooms and/or opioids) in the previous year (2013/14). On top of that, Britain is considered one of the world leaders in consumption of alcohol with only 16% of the population aged 18+ claiming to have never had a drink. This means that approximately 33 million people have used drugs or alcohol in the past year, in Britain and Wales alone. However, national statistics show that only 109,000 people received treatment for alcohol abuse in 2013-14, and approximately 200,000 people received treatment for drug abuse in the same year. And while there are likely a few hundred thousand more that need treatment but have not sought it yet, it is still only a small percentage of people who have developed addiction problems, compared to those who have not.
So what does this mean? It means that a very large number of people who drink and take drugs each year are capable of doing so recreationally and responsibly. Which of course, brings us back to the question – why can some people use alcohol and drugs and not become addicted while others cannot?
When Does Recreational Use Become Addiction?
It is true that there are millions of people around the globe who manage to drink at parties, take drugs on occasion, and remain somewhat unscathed from the negative health effects of these substances. For example, a person may go to the gym five days a week, eat healthily, be successful in their career, and consume several glasses of wine on the weekend – even binge drink on occasion. Others may choose to partake in more serious drugs, such as ecstasy or cocaine, once in a while when they are at a party. However, they are able to remain in control and never develop an addiction to drugs or alcohol.
On the other hand, we have those people who start off with similar substance use patterns – a drink after work, a party on the weekend, a toke of marijuana to relieve stress – and the substance use quickly spirals into an escape, the user drinks or does drugs more frequently, they build up a tolerance and find they need to do more of the same in order to get that same ‘high’, and the next thing they know they have developed an addiction to drugs, alcohol or both. Where is the line crossed that pushes only certain people into the addiction zone? What makes some people more susceptible to becoming addicted than others?
Risk Factors for Addiction
Understanding the risk factors for addiction is the first step to understanding why some people will become addicts, and others can continue to use drugs and alcohol recreationally. Essentially, the risk factors are broken down into three main categories:
- Biological factors. These include genetics, mental illness and gender. Children of addicts are 8 times more likely to become addicted than children of non-addicted parents. As well, those with certain mental illnesses are more likely to develop addiction, and gender can sometimes play a role.
- Environmental Risks and Influences. These include home and family, age, peer pressure and stress. Those who come from a family where physical or mental abuse was common during childhood are at a higher risk for developing addiction. Overall, those who live in a state of frequent stress in any way are at a higher risk for becoming addicted.
- Drug type and administration. Certain drugs are more addictive than others. If a user quickly became familiar with a heavy drug such as heroin, their chances of becoming addicted increase. As well, if drugs are injected or smoked, it releases the high more quickly, enhancing the addictive qualities.
(For a more in-depth look at these categories, please read ‘Risk Factors for Addiction’.)
As you can see, there are many factors at play which ultimately decide whether a person will become addicted or not. But the main truth of the matter is that addiction is a disease, and it is important to realise that in the same way a person does not choose to have heart disease, a person does not choose to become addicted.
Addiction as a Disease
Addiction is approximately 40 to 60 percent genetics. It is a disease that takes place in the brain and can be passed down from generation to generation. Brain scans have revealed what happens to an addict’s brain when they are addicted, allowing researchers to conclude that addiction is a neurological disease that blocks the addict from logical thinking when they are craving drugs or alcohol.
Essentially, dopamine plays a huge role in addiction. When any person consumes drugs or alcohol, their dopamine levels increase. Someone who is more susceptible to addiction will often have lower levels of natural dopamine in the brain, leaving them less than satisfied on a regular basis. When their dopamine levels are increased due to drugs or alcohol, their brain quite quickly decides it needs more of whatever it was that made the dopamine increase (in this case drugs or alcohol).
For those with addiction in the family, it often means that low levels of dopamine, or certain mental illnesses are passed down genetically. Thus, if you are aware of addiction in your family, you must be extra cautious when it comes to partaking in any type of alcohol or drug use – having an addicted parent does not mean you will become addicted, it just means your chances are higher, and you have to take care of yourself in the correct manner.
For example, if heart disease runs in your family, you would make sure you eat right, exercise, and be mindful of staying healthy in order to avoid developing heart disease later on. The same goes for addiction. It is important to understand how addiction works, and minimise your exposure to drugs and alcohol if you know that you are genetically susceptible to addiction.
How Do I Know If I Will Become Addicted?
Unfortunately, even with the wealth of information becoming available about the disease of addiction, it is still impossible to point out exactly who will and who will not become addicted. Instead, it is a bit of an educated guessing game by taking all risk factors into account. So that being said, if you are having difficulty using drugs or alcohol responsibly, or are at high risk for addiction, it is best to remain sober.
If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, contact one of our experienced counsellors for a free initial consultation. Help is available.