Is Substance Abuse Learned Behavior or does Addiction Have a Genetic Element To It?

When an addict gets to a point in their lives when they are ready to seek treatment at a Florida addiction treatment center for chemical dependency, they may ask themselves the same question as so many other addicts before them have done, “How did I get here?”. It’s more than just a question of existential angst. In fact, behavioral therapy, a method of therapy that is quickly becoming the bedrock of alcohol and drug mental health rehab in Florida and across the United States, teaches people struggling with addiction that they must understand the affliction thoroughly in order to recover from it. A person who struggles with any disease needs to understand the disease itself – the physical aspects of the way it affects anyone’s bodies,and the specific ways in which it changes or disrupts the addict’s body uniquely to them. Likewise, the addict needs to understand the way their specific drug of choice has changed their biology and shifted their body systems, but also the more general ins and outs of addiction need to be thoroughly understood before the addict’s situation will be fully and accurately comprehensible to them. More specifically, and many would argue more difficulty, they absolutely must understand the context that brought them to this moment. The circumstances or trauma that led them down the road to addiction. The mental illness which has driven them there. The escalation of events that made them take the first hit or drink, and then the difficult or complicated parts of their lives where they decided to keep drinking, to keep using even though they wanted to stop. Only through that kind of self exploration and persistent education can someone truly treat the disease and hope to live any kind of successful sober life.

The Genetic Side of Addiction

For a very long time addiction was viewed as not so much a disease as a personal failing of character on the part of the person suffering from chemical dependency and the emotional tie to substance abuse. As science has progressed we can now say that addiction can indeed have a genetic propensity behind it, thus leaving those referencing a sense of laziness or weakness on the part of those suffering with addiction in the past. In Genes and Addictions, an article for American Society for Clinical Pharmacology & Therapeutics, L. Bevilacqua and D. Goldman tell their readers that, “Both genetic and environmental variables contribute to the initiation of use of addictive agents and to the transition from use to addiction. Addictions are moderately to highly heritable.” (

Bevilacqua and Goldman explain that the closer in relationship a person is to the relation struggling with addiction, the higher risk addiction is for that person. For instance if an addict’s father is addicted to opioids they are more likely to form an addiction than if their uncle was the opioid addict. It’s worth noting however, that this is an excellent example of how nature and nurture wind together in an almost untangleable knot of influence over a person. For instance if an addict grew up with a mother who was an alcoholic, doesn’t that ping both the nature and nurture aspects of how this person became an alcoholic?  

Sometimes finding out about the way genetics play out in addiction can be useful for a person struggling with addiction because it can open up a door that leads more expediently or at least less complicatedly toward addiction recovery and on to a sober life. For instance some studies have suggested that genes can also play a role in how impulsive a person is, which is a trait that could easily lead to addiction. However, if impulsivity is something that a patient in a recovery program knows they may be genetically predisposed to,  that can be a point of order on their treatment program. Knowing that an addict has a propensity for impulsivity, or that they have a specific mental illness when going into recovery can set the addict up for success with more ease because it can allow the creation of a treatment plan to be that much more effective.

If an addict has someone in their family who is also suffering from addiction it could be advantageous to talk with them about the journey they have gone through with substance abuse, assuming they are supportive and enthusiastic about their family member’s search for understanding and sobriety. If there’s a person in the addict’s life who has struggled with addiction but who has already gone through detoxification and rehabilitation, having an in depth conversation about the struggles of the recovery process may garner the addict facing recovery a few valuable pointes. Getting an insider’s understanding of what kinds of strategies a family member utilized to successfully make it through drug and alcohol addiction recovery could very well help a user move through roadblocks in treatment and might even be the key that helps a substance abuser unlock the door to sobriety.

Because of the stigma that has come along with addiction for generations, it may be a surprise to many addicts to hear that “addictions are moderately to highly heritable”. It might also be comforting for an addict to begin to understand fully, and believe concretely that addiction is indeed a treatable and manageable disease, and that the addict themselves are not inherently flawed. It may feel like cold comfort given what a taxing and raw experience drug and alcohol addiction and treatment can be, but it should also tell someone struggling with drug or alcohol disorder that, since it is not just a personality flaw, and indeed does have biology at its roots, that treatment is worth it and recovery is possible.


How This Can Benefit Dual Diagnosis Treatment

There’s often a mental health aspect that goes along with someone’s drug or alcohol addiction. More than twenty percent of people suffering from addiction have a dual diagnosis. Dual diagnosis, sometimes referred to as a co-occurring disorder or even a comorbidity, is when someone is struggling both with substance abuse or chemical dependency as well as a mental health disorder.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, mental health disorders that are commonly associated with a dual diagnosis are:

  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder
  • Panic Disorder
  • Social Anxiety
  • Personality Disorder
  • Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
  • Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
  • Schizophrenia
  • Depression
  • Bipolar Disorder


Dual diagnosis can greatly benefit from the understanding that addiction has some genetic roots. Because mental illness is largely hereditary it is often true that treatment for mental health can be consistent between family members. That is to say, if one thing worked for a mother with generalized anxiety disorder, the same medication or treatment could indeed work for her daughter. Not only that, but it is possible knowing that genetically a family is likely to both have mental health disorders and addiction struggles may help to uncover any behind the scenes mental health struggles that could be underpinning an addicts addictive behaviors.


The tricky thing about dual diagnosis is that in order to successfully treat either the mental health issues or the addiction, a person struggling with addiction has to treat both simultaneously. Because the mental illness and the addiction feed off of one another, it’s not possible to manage one with managing the other as well. Therefore, seeking out any information a family member with addiction and mental illness may have about medications that worked for them, strategies they put into play that were successful, could push the addict through to sobriety sooner and with more success.  

Learned Behavior

While it could surprise many people to hear that genetics can play a part in someone developing a drug or alcohol addiction, as well as any other kind of addiction, it is very likely less surprising to know that learned behavior is also a real source of catalyst and underpinning of substance abuse and addiction in an addict. That social factor can become overwhelming for a teenager. Social structures and cultural influences, be it pop culture or any other kind of close knit culture, rule the lives of adolescents. Peer pressure can be an overwhelming part of growing up, but it’s also important to remember that peer pressure never really goes away. Sometimes as adults we experience peer pressure under the veil of humor, but pressure from colleagues and peers is still unacceptable and can be really detrimental to those on the other side of the pressure . No matter what age you are, peer pressure is often unavoidable and causes teenagers, young adults, and even middle aged or perennial adults to do irrational and sometimes dangerous things in the name of fitting in to what, to them, feels like their people. Finding a group of people whom they can trust and rely on is likely something of an animal instinct for teenagers. That is the time of independence and nothing is more valuable than having allies. The urge to fit in and the willingness to go to great lengths to feel accepted and safe in your group of people is powerful but also more fundamental and less of a personality flaw than people think.

Studies have shown that nature and nurture work in conjunction with one another in their support of addiction developing within a vulnerable person. As the adolescent grows into a more social individual, social pressures take the lead and biology takes a back seat  as far as influence toward developing addiction goes.

Why Does it Matter?

When we understand the source of a disease it makes it easier to treat. Comprehending that addiction comes from multiple sources helps us target those specific sources and catalysts in Florida drug and alcohol addiction recovery treatment. In her manuscript called The Genetic Basis of Addictive Disorders, published by The Psychiatric Clinics of North America, Dr. Francesca Ducci explains a little bit more about how nature and nurture come together to create addiction. Where one leaves off the other picks up. “Modulating” pressures, some natural and some environmental make it so addiction is rather difficult to avoid for someone who has both the addictive genes and are also surrounded by heavy environmental pressure, such as a social pressure at work, or school, or even an addicted parent.


Genetic and environmental influences modulating risk of SUDs (substance use disorders) change developmentally and across the lifespan. In a longitudinal twin study, [it was] found that gene effects in alcohol, cannabis, and nicotine addictions were low in early adolescence but their relative importance gradually grew in adulthood. In contrast, the effect of family environment declined from childhood to adulthood. A possible explanation is that as they mature, people have increasing latitude to shape their choices and social environments, thus increasing the relative importance of genotype.” (


In other words, the pressure to engage in addictive behaviors such as binge drinking with work colleagues,or shooting up with your roomates, is pervasive and multifaceted. Addiction will use whatever means necessary.


Seeing how different moments in the timeline of personal histories can change whether a genetic propensity for addiction is ever triggered shows that the need for personalized substance abuse and chemical dependency treatment is very real. Shaping addiction treatment to the individual suffering from the disease is the only solution for such a multifaceted disease.

Treatment Available for Chemical Dependency


Drug and alcohol detox centers in Florida offer the therapies necessary to take both nature and nurture into account. At FHE Health we offer best in class quality of care that involves working with qualified therapists and licensed medical staff. We can help patients struggling with all kinds of addiction to better understand the origins of their substance abuse and the best types of treatment to better prepare the addict for a different kind of living. Contact us today to learn how we can help you.

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