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Addiction: Nature vs Nurture

Updated: Jan 7, 2022

Usually when writing a blog I aim to solely use peer reviewed papers and reputable sources for my information (academic habits die hard!), and leave my personal opinion out of it. However, I feel it will be impossible to discuss this topic without rummaging around here a bit. *Spoiler alert* I have heard many convincing arguments from both parties and needless to say the debate goes on. I also feel the only way I can possibly tackle this subject is to take a conversational tone. I hope to present both sides sufficiently to help you make your own informed conclusions.

Firstly, we should explore whether or not there is an ‘addiction gene’. There has been plenty of research invested in trying to identify the genes associated with addiction and substance dependency. Despite these efforts, conclusive evidence has been scant. One could argue that addictive tendencies are hardwired into the human biological make-up; we find a substance or activity pleasurable and so want more of it. The difference now is that those pleasurable things are so easy to come by now; sugar, food, sexual partners … life is less ‘hunter-gatherer’ and more ‘want-have’.

Could addictive genes be hereditary? Scientists have shown that children of addict parents are eight times more likely to abuse substances at some stage in their lives themselves. Indeed, further evidence to support the addictive gene lies in research on identical twins, which found that if one twin is an addict the other is highly likely to also be an addict. Also, studies on adoptees whose biological parents are addicts were found to be more likely to develop substance abuse disorders at some stage in their lives themselves.

It can be easy to assume from this data that addiction is indeed passed on from one generation to the next, but perhaps the answer is a little more complex; what if we scratch below the surface and consider that it is not the genetic co-ordinates instructing the child’s development but the behaviour of their parents, and the child’s subsequent nurturing, that influences their compulsion to seek pleasure or mentally escape? I would like to come back to this point in just a moment by discussing the work of Gabor Maté and his theories of childhood development.

Rather than one specific gene, there seem to be combinations of genes that make one more susceptible to developing addictive behaviour, although it might not occur. The combinations affect the age at which someone starts using, the degree of pleasure they feel from using and even their sensitivity to the consequences of that use.

For addiction to develop, environmental factors such as upbringing or present-day stress could trigger these genes to ‘turn on’. A phenomenon that is called ‘epigenetics’. Perhaps this explains why many siblings can be born into a family with an addictive parent, but not all of them will become an addict; some children will simply not inherit the gene combination and others may inherit but never have these genes activated. Therefore, the good news is that no one can be born an addict, yes, the potential may be there but developing addiction can be avoided.

Interestingly, Vink (2016) noted that certain sets of genes influence the type of substance which the addict is vulnerable towards! Gene and environment interactions need further study but research into this area could reveal the delicate balances that result in individual addictive differences.

There are also many examples of addicts and alcoholics who have no family history of addiction. These individuals lend credence to the theory that addiction development is purely down to the nurture one receives. Nurturing factors include sociocultural factors, environmental factors, personality, emotions, cognitions, psychological reinforcement of substance use, and cognitive and behavioral changes. A caring and encouraging upbringing is more likely to produce a well-rounded and emotionally regulated adult.

However, if one experiences abuse in their childhood, whether that be physical, sexual, psychological or neglect in any form, one is far more vulnerable to turning to substance abuse to soothe themselves. A modern well-known name who proports the theory that addiction is the result of childhood trauma is Gabor Maté. Indeed, he firmly believes that all addictive behaviour can be traced back to childhood trauma. He asserts “not everyone who is traumatized becomes addicted. But everyone who is addicted was traumatized”. This is rather an extreme view and seems to be at odds with what I have already discussed. The fervor of his belief in this theory appears to be to the exclusions of the other explanations. I am more inclined to say “yes, and …”. Whilst childhood trauma may well have a significant part to play in addiction vulnerability, I do not believe it is the sole cause, nor does it’s presence denote absolute certainty of developing substance abuse disorders.

What do you think? Is one of these theories more convincing or likely to you? It seems it’s 6 of one and half a dozen of the other. I think the most likely scenario is that genetic inheritance can make certain people more susceptible to developing addictive tendencies. They have genes they have inherited, which through epigenetics, may or may not be ‘switched on’ due to life circumstances. I don’t think this answers all cases of addiction, take for instance the veteran who drinks to soothe themselves and winds up with severe dependency. Genetic predisposition does not seem necessary for this sort of addiction to develop. Indeed, without wishing to go down too far a tangent, a key factor missing from their lives is a community to understand and support them. A tribe. This is an integral element of recovery and healing for any PTSD survivor. Interestingly, this social component is vital in any addiction recovery scenario. If you haven’t already, read about the Rat Park experiment to see this beautifully exemplified.

Here I have touched on the beginnings of what is a lively and significant debate, though each of these paragraphs deserves an essay of its own to really get to grips with the subject. What I like to say to my clients is yes, it’s interesting but ultimately it doesn’t really matter whether one developed addiction or inherited it, the only question that really matters initially is what you can do about your addiction today. I do think identifying sources of addiction is valuable in preventing relapse though, because work in this area could help identify triggers and prevent the individual from stumbling into old patterns of behaviour. Another crucial fact that Rat Park revealed is that one CAN recover from addiction. Anyone can and I see my job as enabling you to manage your life free from drugs and alcohol using various psychological and practical tools so that you don’t need me anymore.

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