When your doctor asks you for your family history, it isn’t for no reason. Being aware of what health conditions your family members may suffer from may provide the missing puzzle pieces necessary for your doctor to be able to establish sound conclusions about your health for you.

The cause of alcohol and drug addiction is rarely reduced to one culprit. More often, it has been suggested that there are multiple combinations of hereditary and environmental factors known to increase the risk for addiction. In order to adopt a comprehensive view on the cause of addiction and alcoholism and whether it’s possible for it to run in families, it’s important to assess every root these diseases tend to trace back to.

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Drug and alcohol abuse is not a topic one should take lightly. In fact, the National Institute on Drug Abuse determined that in 2017, there were 70,237 drug overdoses in the United States. Researchers have been diligently trying to debunk the mysterious secret formula to what “makes” an addict or alcoholic for years. As it turns out, there are multiple components that make drug abuse, alcohol abuse, and the addiction to mind-altering substances much more probable.

It’s important to educate yourself on addiction to alcohol and drugs and its leading causes; addiction discriminates against absolutely no one. The reasons addiction tends to run in families are not limited to habit and vicious cycles, but also may lie in the very fabric of the shared genes themselves.

Genetic Predisposition

Genetic factors are some of the leading determinants to someone developing addiction – and one of the main reasons that addiction tends to run in families. 

In their article on Bipolar Disorder, webmd.com states that “children who have one parent with the disorder have about a 10%-25% chance of developing the disorder themselves; children with two parents with the disorder have a 10%-50% chance. If a non-identical twin sibling has the disorder, the chance that another sibling will have it is about 10%-25%.”

Statistics show that mental illnesses such as Bipolar Disorder, also known as manic depression because of the large swings between mania and a depressive state, strongly stem from having a relative with the disorder. Bipolar is one of the most common mental illnesses associated with drug and alcohol abuse because of the tendency of its sufferers to self-medicate with alcohol and drugs to control their highs and lows. 

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Brain chemistry is known to cause personality traits that are not just learned, but inherited. There are particular ones that are also known to heighten the possibility of a drug or alcohol addiction eventually developing in an individual. For example, impulsivity, a personality trait known as the tendency to act on a whim with little consideration of the consequences or be reckless, has been linked heavily to drug and alcohol addiction

Either the overabundance of or insufficiency of brain chemicals such as serotonin and dopamine, two of the most famous brain chemicals known to affect mood and happiness, can contribute to someone developing an addiction. The levels (or imbalance thereof) of these chemicals in ones brain can cause impulsivity along with a large range of other irregular emotions and behaviors, such as depression, anxiety, and mania.  In the American Society of Addiction Medicine’s same article above, it’s stated that “blunted dopamine” transition is one of the number one biomarkers of addiction. 

Unfortunately, we can’t control the brain chemistry we inherit (yet), but we can be aware of what it could mean for our behavior, emotions, coping skills, and thus whether it could be linked to the tendency for drug and alcohol abuse. 

Trauma And The Brain

Often, if one grows up in an environment where drugs and alcohol are consistently present, it isn’t uncommon that there will be volatility present as well. Early childhood trauma (or traumatic experiences in general) is known to be a contributing factor to mental illness and has even been linked to changes in brain chemistry.

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Gabor Mate, a leading Canadian psychologist who talks about ADHD and the way that addictions stem heavily from trauma, explains in an interview with The Fix how trauma can also lead to a “harmful personal mythology” and thus eventually addictions:

“The impact of childhood adversity is to give a person a distorted and negative view of the world and of themselves. By nature, we are born into the world expecting to be nurtured and loved and supported, understood and seen and heard because that’s how human beings evolved. In fact, that’s how any mammal evolved. When that doesn’t happen, when we’re hurt for whatever reason, when we’re simply not seen or understood or nurtured emotionally in the way that we need, then we immediately come to believe, and this belief becomes ingrained in our psyches, that’s there’s something wrong with us. We believe we should be ashamed of who we actually are, and that’s because children take everything personally.”

Not only shared genes, but shared habits, ways of coping with emotions and feelings, and methods of parenting can also affect whether a child will develop a mental illness (including addiction). It is not only our genetics that get passed down from our parents and grandparents, but also our ways of handling what life throws at us that can determine whether alcoholism or drug addiction develops. 

Very rarely do you meet an addict that says they are well-equipped with healthy coping skills. Coping skills are learned behaviors that are passed down from parent to child and allow people to appropriately handle life events and emotions in a way that is not detrimental to them. If someone is able to cope with their emotions and had present parents and family members that were able to teach them how to appropriately handle their emotions, it is less likely that they will develop a substance abuse disorder. Though, of course, because addiction usually includes multiple causes, the development of an addiction in someone with some healthy coping skills is not impossible.

By assessing certain genetic factors and the history of the family dynamic itself, one could deduce that addiction can, without a doubt, run in families. It is, more often than not, the actual “perfect storm” of events and chemicals that will lead to the development of an addiction to drugs, alcohol, or behavioral patterns.