Science of Addiction: Environment and Substance Abuse


Understanding the science of addiction is essential not just in recovery and addiction treatment. Learning more about the science of addiction can be crucial if you’re struggling with addiction personally. These topics are also worth learning more about if you have a loved one with a substance use disorder.

You might be wondering why.

The truth is, despite all the evidence to the contrary, we still tend to view addiction to drugs or alcohol as a personal failing or a moral issue. Sometimes society or even families and loved ones may view it as a choice of selfishness.

The reality is, addiction is a complex condition affecting the brain, body, and behavior. Addiction stems from a combination of factors, based on what research, observational studies, systematic reviews, and current evidence show us. Among those factors is the environment.

Below, we talk more about the general science of addiction and how the environment plays such a significant role in this brain disorder. By honing in on the impact of the environmental exposures in addiction, loved ones can be more understanding; it’s also possible to reduce risk factors for relapse after treatment.


Science of Addiction

For decades, researchers and scientists have been working to uncover the true drivers of addiction and understand more about the science behind addiction. In the process of doing so, they’ve dispelled many of the misconceptions and myths. Eliminating these myths has broken down some of the stigmas and allowed more people to get the help and treatment they need.

When scientists started studying addiction in the 1930s, the common wisdom was addiction was a moral failure among those lacking willpower. The views at that time then shaped how society responded to addiction and drug use. The result was a focus on punishment instead of prevention or public health.

Now, we understand so much more about the brain. We are gaining more insight into how the brain circuits and structure and other elements lead to compulsive drug or alcohol use.

We know now, because of work by the scientific community, that addiction is a medical disorder. Along with environmental risk factors, we’re also learning more about biological contributors. Researchers are starting to look for genetic variations that will ultimately show us more about the development of substance use disorders and their progression.

What’s the impact on treatment?

This growing body of knowledge is helping reshape addiction treatment approaches. In doing so, the toll on individuals, their families and loved ones, and entire communities can decline. With that, while the science of addiction has brought us very far since the 1930s, there’s still a lot we don’t know. 


What Is Addiction?

Researchers, doctors, and treatment professionals now know that addiction is a chronic, relapsing disorder. 

  • Symptoms of the disorder include compulsive drug or alcohol seeking. 
  • Someone with an addiction disorder will continue to use drugs or alcohol despite the adverse effects of dopamine surges and other neurobiological factors. 
  • There are functional changes in the brain, particularly in the circuits playing a role in reward, self-control, and stress. 
  • The changes can persist for quite some time after someone stops using the substance.
  • As is the case with other chronic illnesses, addiction disrupts the healthy and normal functioning of a critical organ—your brain.
  • Also, like chronic disorders, addiction is progressive, meaning without treatment, it gets worse.

Brain imaging studies show us physical changes in the part of the brain impacting learning, memory, behavioral control, judgment, and decision-making. The changes that occur and can be seen with imaging help us learn more about the compulsiveness of addiction.


Why Do Some People Develop an Addiction While Others Don’t?

The big question that researchers, as mentioned above, is looking at more right now is why some people get addicted to substances while others don’t. As is the case with other physical and mental disorders and diseases, the likelihood you’ll develop an addiction varies from other people. There’s not one specific factor that will say yes, you’re going to develop an addiction.

However, the more risk factors you have, the greater the chances of a substance use disorder.

Environmental risk factors include:

  • Aggression in childhood
  • Lack of supervision by parents
  • Problems refusing peers
  • Substance experimentation
  • Availability of drugs
  • Growing up in poverty

Protective factors include:

  • Belief in self-control
  • Supportive parents who monitor the behavior
  • Strong, positive relationships
  • Doing well in school
  • Going to a school with anti-drug policies
  • Neighborhood support resources


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Environmental Factors Increasing the Risk of Addiction

For quite some time, research has shown us that your environment influences your risk of not only developing an addiction initially but also for relapse. Young people are especially vulnerable to environmental risk factors, according to numerous studies, many of which have been larger studies. 

In a study called The Genetic and Environmental Bases of Addiction by the national institute on drug abuse NIDA, the authors say the use of drugs and alcohol is a learned behavior based off lifestyle factors. There’s often a cultural emphasis on learning how to drink, and those environmental elements play an integral role in addiction formation, according to solid evidence we have available. 

The environment can mean what happens at home and school, within neighborhoods, and in social events. If you grew up in an environment with widespread use and availability of drugs and alcohol, it could strongly affect your usage.

  • It’s not only seeing drug or alcohol use that affects you environmentally. If you grew up in a stressful environment or experienced trauma such as domestic violence, physical or sexual abuse, mental illness, or neglect, you are at higher risk of addiction. For example, a study in the journal Addictive Behaviors found opiate users were 2.7 times more likely to have a history of childhood abuse than non-users.
  • Research published in the JAMA Psychiatry journal found that healthy people with a sibling or spouse who used substances had an increased risk of using them.
  • University of Texas researchers demonstrated trauma causes changes in the brain. Those changes impact neural networks that influence the likelihood of developing a substance use disorder.
  • Parenting style is a relevant factor. When children are raised by overly authoritative or demanding parents or excessively permissive parents, they’re more likely to use drugs or drink.
  • As children grow into teens, a sense of belonging within a social network becomes especially important. If a teen has a friend group where most activities center around drinking, drugs, or addictive behavior, they will be more likely to engage in the same behaviors. The same is true even as adults. These environmental effects are one reason you learn in treatment to avoid certain people, places, and things that could trigger you to relapse or increase your addiction risk. 
  • The teen brain develops, which puts young people who use drugs and alcohol early on at a greater risk of later compulsive behavior and changes to brain chemistry leading to addiction.

Addiction is not something that we can pinpoint one particular cause for every person. What we do know is that it’s multifaceted, but so many elements of the environment   shape who we ultimately become and how we view drugs and alcohol.

Contact the team at Opus Health by calling 855-953-1345 to learn more about how evidence-based treatment addresses these underlying environmental elements, so you can learn how to change your surroundings and enjoy a fulfilling recovery.

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