Families in the U.S. have been facing high levels of chronic stress for a while now, and, their exposure to acute stressors may have risen also recently, thanks to a dramatic rise in domestic violence. Coinciding with the era of restrictions on travel and social distancing, experts have recorded a 20 percent increase in the number of domestic violence calls globally, the BBC reported.
Such statistics are an introduction to how stress can affect the family and, in some instances, create conditions in which addiction can develop and even flourish. While it’s no secret that stress within the family can cause addiction, the mechanism of how this happens is often harder to decode—and a source of concern and anguish for families affected by drug and alcohol abuse.
For a deeper understanding of the link between family-related stress and addiction, we sought the help of FHE Health’s Lead Clinical Therapist Scott Gallo, LMHC, MCAP, an expert on the topic. Gallo is a licensed mental health counselor and certified addiction professional. He received his Master’s degree in mental health counseling from Cambridge College, before completing graduate training at Harvard University’s School of Education in the field of human development and psychology. What Gallo had to say about stress in family environments and its causal connection to addiction—or lack thereof—may come as both a relief and a surprise….
How Family Environment Is a Factor in the Development of Addiction
The question of family environment and its causality with respect to addiction is complex, according to Gallo. He was “leery” about suggesting “there’s any one particular stressor that can cause addiction,” on the basis of his experience working with patients in substance abuse treatment.
Gallo said that while many patients do report having had a dark or traumatic childhood marked by abuse and/or other forms of neglect, many others say they had a stable and happy childhood. Many in fact recall having gotten everything they could ever have wanted growing up. (More about that in a minute.) To draw causal lines in the sand can therefore be problematic.
That said, Gallo was quick to note the influential role that one’s family environment can play in the development of addiction. And research supports his claim: In the ongoing debate over whether addiction is more the product of nature or nurture, researchers have concluded that addiction typically results from an interplay of a person’s genes and their family environment, (lifestyle, upbringing, demographics, relationships, experiences, etc.).
As further illustration of how important the family environment can be, Gallo said the family “plays a significant role and is a significant focus in treatment, especially in the latter part of treatment.” That’s when the question of whether a patient’s family will be “supportive or undermining of their recovery” emerges as critically important. “It can be toxic [for that person’s recovery], if back home everyone’s substance use or abuse is normalized,” Gallo said.
He went on to explain:
People back home may have their own addiction problems and may not be invested in seeing a person in early recovery be successful in recovery. If family relationships are chronically conflicted, then it can be toxic … Also, the values of the family—if these aren’t supportive of the values we try to instill in people (recovery values), and if their family operates from a different set of values, that can be a factor as well—and, if their family operates from a different set of values which are counter to recovery
Stress and Addiction – The Complexity of Vulnerability to Addiction
Many family members want to know what precise stressor or adverse experience triggered their loved one’s addiction or made them vulnerable to drugs and alcohol. They also worry about whether they could have protected their loved one more from substance abuse—if only they could have done something differently.
Gallo’s responses to these concerns may come as a relief. “No family caused someone’s addiction,” he said. He also discouraged individuals and families from engaging in potentially counter-productive and unnecessarily painful efforts to identify where things went wrong in their family history. Gallo has seen this firsthand: “…the person or family will twist their brain trying to figure out a past event where it all went wrong or some dark, traumatic thing happened. Sometimes there are past events related to the development of their addiction and sometimes not.”
As for the “many people in treatment who grew up getting everything they wanted,” Gallo explained why “that’s not good” either: “When a child grows up being spoiled and never gets told ‘no,’ they don’t know what hardship is; when they reach the point where they’re hit with the reality that life doesn’t give you what you want, then that absence of opportunity to develop a tolerance for stress is also vulnerability [to addiction].”
Additionally, parents can benefit from knowing earlier rather than later that “it’s good to say ‘no’” to their children at times, “because the world is going to say ‘no,’ no matter how much you give your child.”
Types of Stress in Family Environments That Can Lead to Addiction
The relationship between stress in a family environment and vulnerability to addiction is therefore complex. On the one hand, there are the childhood stressors associated with addiction— “an unstable, unsafe, chaotic home life where there’s a lot of conflicts, for example.” In this family environment, if “a child doesn’t feel valued and they grow up feeling responsible for the chaos and conflict,” that “correlates with addiction problems,” Gallo said.
There are also the stressors in adulthood that can affect a family environment and raise its vulnerability to addiction. Gallo said these stressors are typically more practical, related to “real-life roles and obligations, finances, conflicted relationships, and balancing parenting and work.” He said work and health problems can be other big stressors, particularly given the current public health issues in the community and nation.
All of these childhood and adulthood stressors can lead to addiction. But Gallo emphasized that a lack of exposure to stress growing up on account of over-indulgent parenting or for another reason can also be a risk factor for addiction. After all, resilience to addiction develops over time from exposure to challenges that can be stressful. In the absence of that exposure, a child will have little to no healthy coping mechanisms for those hard times in early adulthood, and may be more likely to turn to drugs and alcohol as a form of self-soothing.
What Families Can Do to Create an Environment Less Prone to Addiction
Given the strong connection between stress and addiction and the widespread recognition that substance abuse is overwhelmingly an unhealthy response to stress (as a form of self-soothing), many families naturally want to know what they can do to “stress-proof” their environment to help a loved one in early recovery. Gallo’s answer may come as a surprise: “Families shouldn’t be doing anything,” he said, clarifying “that the goal is not to eliminate stress.” (For that matter, “it’s not practical to eliminate all stress.”)
Here’s how Gallo explained it:
“Families aren’t responsible for eliminating the stress of their addicted loved one. This is what they already do, and that’s enabling … It’s enabling when a family member bends over backwards to ensure there’s no stress … A lack of stress isn’t necessarily the goal. A person in recovery has to do what they can to make [their stress] manageable, diminish it, and learn to cope with it.”
Gallo drew a helpful distinction between reducing or eliminating stress and supporting healthy stress-coping mechanisms on the part of a loved one. For instance, it’s not overstepping or enabling to suggest to a loved one in early recovery that they go for a run when they’re feeling stressed-out.
How to Help a Loved One with a Developing Addiction
If family members shouldn’t be responsible for reducing or eliminating stress, according to Gallo, they can be responsible for “learning healthy communication skills and being supportive.” Families also need to realize that “you didn’t cause the issue and can’t control it.” Gallo recommended that family members with addicted loved ones “consult a therapist or join an Al-Anon group to work on being the healthiest person they can be, so they can learn more about their role in a relationship with the addicted person.”
Gallo also suggested “work on avoiding codependent patterns—these keep addiction alive and the family member exhausted.”
The end result of all that hard work may not result in a stress-free, family environment—but it will be healthier and, in this sense, more conducive to a loved one’s success in recovery.
For confidential, personalized help regarding a loved one’s addiction, call us today at 1-833-729-3774. Our counselors are available 24/7 and would be glad to be of assistance.