Trauma and Pain Can Drive Addiction

Woman walking between black and white crowd.

We’ve often heard the question “Can someone be predisposed to addiction?” The question indicates that there can be something inherently or genetically different about a person that makes him more likely to use drugs and alcohol. Is there is a neurological predisposition in the individual’s brain that makes them more likely to pick up the bottle or reach for the dime bag? Or maybe there’s an “addiction” or “drug” gene some people are just born with? Perhaps the causes of addiction are less about biology and more about our environment, as some have suggested.

We certainly see a higher incidence of substance abuse in young people who grew up with addicts for parents. This is not a definitive answer as parents not only donate the genetic material for their children, they are responsible for the environment they create around the child. While genetics likely do play a part, saying one is more likely to catch an addiction because their parent was an addict (almost like catching a contagious cold) completely misses a good majority of the reasons why a person falls prey to addiction.

There is no genetic grenade or chemical tripwire waiting to go off in an otherwise healthy human being that will “Suddenly turn them into an addict.” A genetic predisposition may be one of many factors, however looking at the environmental factors leads to possible solutions, whereas the genetic “model” leaves this completely unanswered.

Trauma and Loss

A terrible, tragic loss is such an extreme event that it often paralyzes an individual cognitively. He may become so distressed that he no longer thinks straight. He may not be able to conceive of a world where he should be in so much pain. He’s likely suffering so much that he will do anything to relieve that pain. Sometimes, in the throes of this agony, such a person will turn to excessive alcohol consumption or drug use as a coping mechanism to ease some of that pain.

And that’s the key term in this example and in those which follow: “Coping mechanism.” When a person turns to drug use or alcoholism, it is usually because of a terrible and traumatic event which pains him deeply. He starts using substances to cope, but before he knows it, he becomes addicted to the substances and to the activity of using those substances as coping tools.

Exposure to Drug Use at an Early Age Is a Factor

Hispanic teenagers smoking pot.

Drug use at any age is harmful. Let’s be clear about that. But we can all agree that drug use at an early age, such as one’s adolescence, is particularly dangerous. There’s a great article in Bangor Daily News which talks about how drug use is even more dangerous when an individual starts young. We are talking about that crucial time frame in an individual’s life where drug use is most likely to transcend into drug addiction very quickly.

The author, Vivek Kumar, cites brain research and other studies regarding the effects of drug use on a young person’s mind. We won’t get into all of that here, as drug addiction risk is not solely an issue of the brain. However, this quote from Kumar is of relevance, “Of kids who drink (alcohol) by age 14, 15.2 percent become alcoholics, compared with 2.1 percent of those who start drinking after the age of 21. Twenty-five percent of kids who misuse prescription drugs by age 13 will develop substance use problems, compared with 7 percent of those who start after 21. Similar data exist for marijuana and nicotine.”

Growing Up with Parents Who Are Addicts Is Also a Clear Influence

When a child is exposed to substance abuse growing up, most likely on the part of his or her parents, this brands the image of drug use as acceptable into their forming minds. This is extremely harmful to a child. To see Mom and Dad using drugs and drinking when one’s mind is still too young to process those images is very detrimental because it sets a precedent of drug use as being a perfectly reasonable thing to do.

The National Association for the Children of Alcoholics talks a lot about this. According to their research, the children of alcoholics are the highest risk group of children to become alcohol dependent or drug dependent later on in life.

Children learn by mimicking their environment. If a young boy sees drug use and alcohol consumption happening around him, he’s likely to engage in similar patterns when he’s a bit older. The same is true for young girls.

And then there are all of the underlying coping strategies that are silently communicated to kids when they see Mom or Dad drink or use drugs. It’s not just, “Joey sees Dad drink, Joey attributes drinking to something that adults do.” It’s much more insidious than that.

Joey sees Dad drinking, and he understands that Dad is drinking… because Dad is stressed out. That’s the critical factor. So as an adult, Joey turns to the bottle because he learned in childhood that, “Drinking is the solution to stress.” And so the crisis of alcoholism unfolds.

An Addiction Is Often Founded on a Personal Crisis or Difficulty

Crashed picture frame of a couple.

Let’s look at some of the serious problems that happen to people: low self-esteem; a terrible, crippling injury; major financial crisis; a very personal issue of distaste or a lack of acceptance with oneself; losing a loved one; a falling out with the family. Anything that severely disrupts the normalcy and peacefulness of one’s life can inspire a person to use drugs and alcohol. Again, the leading factor here is that the person turns to drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism to deal with whatever it was that they just went through.

Struggles in Life Can Lead to Addiction

Last but not least, just about any significant struggle in life can lead to an addiction. It does not have to be a specific turn of events like those listed in the scenarios above. Losing a job, a bad divorce, a sudden health problem, an onset of depression or anxiety, all could be factors that contribute to this. A lot of this is entirely unpredictable.

The best strategy for avoiding a substance abuse habit is simple enough. Here’s a useful checklist for preventing substance abuse yourself, and to use to teach family members and loved ones:

  • Don’t drink heavily or use drugs, to begin with, even just “socially.”
  • Get educated about drugs and alcohol, so even if temptation does arise, you will know better than to experiment with such harmful substances.
  • When problems do arise in life (and they certainly will) address them in a healthy manner that is conducive to a resolution, not a coping situation.
  • Ensure that those around you are maintaining a sober and healthy lifestyle and that they, too, are addressing and resolving their life struggles in a healthy manner.
  • Surround yourself with sober, good friends and family you can go to should something happen. Get yourself a good reliable support group so you can deal with life and not need an artificial coping mechanism.

We can’t “predict” addiction or say that it is a known future event based on brain chemistry. There is too much involved in addiction. However, we do know the types of events and circumstances that can act as predispositions to substance abuse. The better we can avoid those scenarios (or better address them if they are inevitable) the better off we will be.


Reviewed and Edited by Claire Pinelli ICAADC, CCS, LADC, RAS, MCAP



After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.