Addiction is a disease of the brain. Like other diseases, addiction has a strong genetic component, which means that it can easily run in families. According to numerous studies, addiction is 50 percent genetic predisposition and 50 percent poor coping skills (behavioral). Since the scale can tip in either direction, it’s important for at-risk people to be educated on the disease. Having addiction in the family is never an excuse for experimenting with drugs, and family members who are more at risk need to be accountable for their actions.
How Addiction Acts Like Other Diseases
Addiction manifests itself in a similar manner as other chronic conditions, such as heart disease. Heart disease is partly due to genetic factors and partly due to lifestyle choices, such as smoking, a poor diet and lack of exercise. As we learn more about the importance of having a healthy heart, most people do not just throw up their hands and say that heart disease runs in their family and there is nothing they can do.
Instead, people ask what they can do to lower their risk, and they may take on a more rigorous exercise program, eat a strict diet or stop smoking. Individuals at risk may have to work harder than another person, but they continue to push forward in order to avoid the risk of developing heart disease.
As you can see, heart disease is a similar condition to addiction, and people who are more at risk for dependency may need to work harder to avoid the temptation of experimenting with drugs or falling into a pattern of regular drinking.
What Do the Studies Say about Addiction?
There have been several studies done on the role that family history plays in the onset of addiction. One study showed that children of addicts are 8 times more likely to develop a drug or alcohol addiction compared to children with non-addicted parents. The reason for this is twofold, and goes back to the nature vs. nurture debate.
First, since addiction has a genetic component, children born to addicts will have a genetic predisposition for the brain disease. How and when will these genes be triggered? No one really knows for sure. Second, if the parent struggles with an addiction and the child sees this behavior, they learn from it. It’s hard to understand how to deal with problems in a healthy, constructive manner when no one is modeling that for you.
Bottom line: Your genes are not your destiny. If addiction does run in your family, it’s best to be honest about the problem and figure out healthy ways to deal with everyday issues.
Understanding Cross Addiction
Another component in addiction is cross addiction. Say that “Brian” is addicted to cocaine. Brian has two children who are both at a higher risk for addiction. They are not predisposed to a cocaine addiction but to all addictions. This happens because of the way that the brain is wired. Once one family member is addicted to drugs or alcohol, the brain is predisposed to all addictions.
Since all addictions work in the same part of the brain, it’s important that all drugs are stopped for full recovery to take place. In order for Brian to reach a complete recovery, he must stop using alcohol and marijuana as well. Even though these substances may not have given Brian any trouble in the past, using these substances, even in a casual manner, will lead him right back to his drug of choice: cocaine.
Experimentation Comes with Great Risk
The brain is an amazing machine, but it’s important to understand how everything comes together in addiction. Being open and honest about the disease is what can help families at risk for dependency. These individuals may also need to be more diligent about learning constructive coping mechanisms compared to the next person. Adopting healthy “outlets” such as journaling, meditating or practicing yoga are great examples of ways to release stress.
The biggest factor to remember is that addiction is addiction. It all stems from the same part of the brain, and experimenting with one drug can easily lead you to another. Since most of us have no idea who we will turn out to be in the story – the one who becomes addicted or the one who doesn’t – experimentation is never worth the risk.