Want to Prevent Addiction? Assess Your Risk Factors


There are five key risk factors that contribute to a person developing the disease of addiction – genetics, childhood trauma, mental illness, social environment and early use. Please remember – just because you have one or more risk factors doesn’t mean you are one drink or one drug use away from alcoholism or drug addiction. It means you want to be very, very careful in your use of drugs or alcohol because your brain may not interact the way another person’s brain does and the only brain you need to worry about is your own. Genetics – It’s not that there is a specific addiction gene – at least not one that has not been identified, yet. Rather it’s the idea of genetic differences. There are roughly 25,000 genes in our DNA, and the way they turn on or off determines how we look and how our bodies work. So just as we are born with (inherit from our parents) certain genetic differences that determine our eye shape or skin color, for example, so too are there genetic differences, such as higher or lower levels of dopamine receptors or lower levels of the enzymes in the liver that break down the alcohol in one standard drink, that can influence how one person’s brain or body will interact with the chemicals in alcohol or drugs. These genetic differences are passed along from one generation to the next. So looking at your family history – mom, dad, grandparents, siblings, aunts/uncles – to see if they had/have addiction is one way to determine if you are predisposed to it, as well. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) > Genetics of Alcohol Use Disorders, “genes are responsible for about half of the risk for alcoholism.” Mental Illness – Mental illnesses, such as depression, anxiety, bipolar, PTSD, ADHD, are also brain changers / brain differences. In other words, the way a person with mental illnesses brain cells communicate with one another is different (for a variety of reasons) than someone who does not have one. This is important to understand because ”[t]hirty-seven percent of alcohol abusers and 53 percent of drug abusers also have at least one serious mental illness,” reports the National Alliance on Mental Illness. To learn more about mental illnesses (there you will find detailed information on various kinds of mental illnesses, as well treatment options). Childhood Trauma – Childhood trauma has a profound impact on the neural circuitry of a child’s brain (meaning how or if brain cells “talk” to one another). It “injures a child’s brain. It impairs the brain’s physical development and function. You can see the effects of trauma on a brain scan. This in turn has a profound impact on how a child copes – how they express anger, fear, powerlessness, how they interpret and respond to other people’s words and actions, how or if they trust, how they learn – it can even lead to mental illnesses, such as anxiety and depression. These brain changes in turn have a profound impact on whether that child’s brain will seek drugs or alcohol for their brain-soothing qualities, as well as how that child’s brain will interact with drugs and alcohol if they use. Childhood trauma includes verbal, physical and emotional abuse and sexual abuse, for example. It also includes domestic violence in the home and parental divorce. Social Environment – If a person lives or works or goes to school in an environment where heavy drinking or drug use is the norm, that person will likely drink or use drugs to that same level. Unfortunately, that same level may not work in their brains the way it works in the brain of their co-workers, family members, fellow students or friends (and frankly, it’s likely not working all that well in those other brains, either). Early Use – This is incredibly important to understand because the adolescent brain is not the brain of an adult. That means the adolescent brain reacts differently with drugs and alcohol than the brain of an adult AND the harm of substance abuse during key developmental processes makes adolescent substance abuse ESPECIALLY problematic. Dr. Paul Thompson’s 10-year time lapse study of brain development ages 5-20 shows just how much wiring – brain maturity – occurs from approximately ages 16-20. It’s now understood this maturity process continues until roughly age 25. Telling the adolescent brain, ages 12-15, to “just say ‘no’” doesn’t work because the adolescent brain is telling the adolescent to “take risks,” “turn to your peers,” and if their peers are saying, “yes” to risks, drugs and/or alcohol, likely that adolescent will, too. This does not mean they’re a bad kid; it simply means their brain’s instinctual wiring (that which activates during puberty) is in charge. Lastly, early use – early abuse of drugs or alcohol – wires in brain maps around the finding, seeking, using, hiding, covering up, recovering from at an especially vulnerable time because it’s occurring during the time the brain is going through it’s CRITCAL cerebral cortex development and its strengthening and pruning processes Bottom Line Just because a person has risk factors does not mean they will develop addiction. It takes abusing a substance to chemically and structurally change the brain to make the brain more susceptible to its risk factors. HOWEVER, the risk factors can also make the brain more “driven” to use and abuse a substance. So the prevention message has to be two-fold – “don’t go overboard” or “just say, ‘No’” AND here’s why – the “why,” of course, is your risk factors. So please pass this along – share it with your spouse, close friend, community leader, teachers, parents, school administrators and perhaps most importantly, youth | your child, because of their particular vulnerability. Assessing your risk factors (or helping someone else to assess theirs) can be the key to addiction prevention. It can also be the key to a person with addiction recognizing they have this disease (it’s more than they “drink too much”) and agreeing to seek treatment for it, which of course will require treatment for any of their underlying risk factors  (mental illness) childhood trauma, as examples).


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