Drug and alcohol addiction affects more than 23 million Americans each year.1 There are numerous factors that contribute to addiction, such as mental illness and genetics. Out of all the possible causes of addiction, only environment contributes to addiction in a way that can affect anyone. So, what are some environmental causes of addiction?
Childhood Environment Contributes to Addiction
Children who are exposed to drugs or alcohol are more likely to imitate those behaviors at younger ages.2 Studies show that the earlier people begin using alcohol and/or drugs, the more likely they are to become addicted.3
Environment and the Brain’s Reward System
Adults who lack close relationships with others in their environments are at a higher risk for addiction. When people bond and feel emotions like love, trust and empathy, the brain releases the hormone oxytocin. Oxytocin activates the brain’s reward system while also increasing feelings of relaxation. Oxytocin can reduce stress and decrease the perceived pleasure of drugs. However, adults who have little social bonding generate less oxytocin. They may turn to substance abuse to produce the pleasure sensations they aren’t getting from oxytocin.4
For children, the environment is one key factor in the development of their oxytocin systems. Adverse experiences in a young person’s environment, such as lack of bonding with parents, physical or sexual abuse, trauma or deprivation, can lead to the impaired development of their oxytocin systems.
Environment and Trauma or Abuse
Psychological trauma can result from a terrible event such as physical or sexual abuse. Many people who experience these types of trauma develop anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder. Other effects include difficulty maintaining relationships and low self-esteem. Some people turn to drugs or alcohol to self-medicate the effects of the traumatic, life-altering events they’ve experienced. When individuals continue to self-medicate to relieve symptoms of trauma, they’re at high risk for developing addiction.
Environment and Cues
Cues in a person’s environment can also play a role in addiction. There is a relationship between cues and habits. A habit becomes consistent more easily if it’s connected to an environmental cue.
For example, a person relaxes after work every day with a few drinks. Because work often finishes at the same time every day, it’s easy to for the second task—having a few drinks—to become a habit. The cue, work ending, always triggers the next task, drinking. When someone drinks consistently, there’s a high risk of this habit developing into an alcohol addiction over time.
There is Hope
The good news is that both past and present environmental influences, as well as addiction, can be treated. Examining a person’s history and treating the effects currently being experienced can minimize the negative impact of past environmental influences. For current environmental influences, cues can be modified to trigger positive events, like exercising instead of drinking after work. Addiction treatment uses behavioral and talk therapies to help people change to meet the challenges of addiction and maintain sobriety. A person’s environment contributes to addiction, but treatment can help.