Anyone with an interest in, or struggle with, addiction will be curious about how someone ends up with an addiction to alcohol, drugs, sex, or food. Is it caused by something within a person like genetics, or something external like the way a person is raised or who they hang out with? Are there spiritual factors or is it a result of childhood trauma?
It’s the main question I get when people seek my help.
The truth is, there’s no one identifiable cause for addiction. With advancements in psychological and biological research, it’s becoming obvious that the age-old debate of nature vs. nurture isn’t as clear-cut as we were previously led to believe.
I believe that nature and nurture, as well as other factors such as spirituality and trauma (which could be considered part of nurture AND biology) also influence the development of an addiction. I’ve talked about these and the biological elements in previous articles, but here I’d like to focus on the environmental factors that contribute to addiction.
In The Abstinence Myth, I refer to this as the "environmentalists and social scientists camp," and in this camp, theorists and researchers strongly believe that external factors dictate our behavior.
A key belief here is that stress is induced by stressful environments, which in turn affects people and their behavior. Additionally, the norms and standards set in a given society create the definition of what is normal and what is not, leading to the labeling of some as deviant (in this case, “addicts”). From this viewpoint, addiction is both created and maintained by factors external to the individual.
The research also supports this. Individuals who associate with others who abuse alcohol or drugs are more likely to engage in that behavior too. And as the use around a person ebbs and flows in quantity and variety, so does their own behavior. However, there are numerous additional environmental influences beyond friends. Parental influence, cultural norms, media representation and learned physical associations are also environmental factors that contribute to addiction.
6 environmental factors that influence addiction
- Family dynamics and interactions. One of the strongest external factors shown to influence addictive behavior is early life experiences. Family interactions, parenting styles, and levels of supervision play a pivotal role in the development of later mental health difficulties, including substance use. In our early years of life, we develop strategies to cope with stress. When these strategies are maladaptive (due to a need to survive in the face of adversity), they can lead to risky or self-destructive behaviors. This means that in adolescence or adulthood, these internal triggers are activated by external factors. Authoritarian and avoidant parenting, exposure to physical/emotional/sexual abuse, and divorce have all been associated with an increased likelihood of substance use problems later in life.
- Friend groups. When an individual’s social interactions rely heavily on associating with individuals who display potential alcohol or drug problems, then it can be very difficult to exorcise yourself from similarly displaying such problematic behaviors. The sense of belonging and feeling connected to like-minded people is a strong factor in the maintenance of addiction. This is one of the main mechanisms that affected my own substance use and that of many of the individuals I see. The habits and behavior patterns of friends will invariably affect that of everyone in the group as they experience peer pressure. Research has shown that individuals with more permissive and less critical views of drug use are more likely to engage in such use (obviously) and that earlier use and exposure are typically associated with more likelihood of later problems.
- Social media. While social media has many social benefits, there are also many social downfalls. When an individual struggling with emotional problems sees other people online who appear to be happy, attractive, and enjoying life, it can make them feel further socially isolated, damage their self-esteem, and exacerbate feelings of shame. There is growing evidence that increased social media use can exacerbate the mental health struggles of those already susceptible to them. Unfortunately, it is very unlikely that this trend will shift in the near future although a number of groups and influencers are beginning to rise who put their imperfections and difficulties front and center in efforts to fight stigma and shame.
- Media in general. People’s behaviors are also influenced by other media avenues such as video games, movies and television shows. From displays of substance use and other behavior that border (or cross into) glorification to the fantasy creation of unrealistic goals and wishes, media portrayal of relationships, violence, sex and more can encourage younger viewers to develop worldviews that are self-critical and unhealthy. We have to be careful here to avoid the over-demonization of media portrayals as they both impact and reflect the changing norms in society. Nevertheless, there is no question that shows like Mad Men create very different masculine ideals for viewers than This Is Us and that any information absorbed can impact behavior. This has been shown to be true for advertising as well as programmatic content.
- Culture/religion. There are many cultural and religious-based triggers for addiction such as the geographical area in which you grow up, religious beliefs prevalent in your culture, early experiences and teachings related to shame, participation in (or exclusion from) cultural or religious activities. Some cultures are accepting of male drinking but not of female drinking and therefore have substantially different rates of alcohol abuse by gender. The same is true for any other cultural norms that are strong enough to sway behavior, especially if they are widely adopted and everyone is exposed to them early. Oftentimes, we see that problematic behavior develops as a direct response in rebellion against such norms.
- Learned environments. For people with addiction, the physical environment can also create a whole host of triggers. From attending a pub for "after-work drinks" to your kitchen bench while home alone, to a particular social hangout, these places can be associated with cravings. When behaviors are repeated, they can be conditioned to a particular place or situation and these learned habits can be hard to break. These triggers can be amplified when the physical place and the people in it are both associated with alcohol or drug abuse. Experiments such as Conditioned Place Preference have revealed that reactions to, and expectation of, the delivery and effect of drugs can form after only three to four exposures to a specific setting and remain, unless the “spell” is broken, eternally.
It’s important to remember that these influences are just risk factors. They will typically not account for all the reasons why someone struggles with addiction. In truth, a whole array of factors come together to bring about the final condition, but knowing what your environmental triggers are can allow you to take steps to minimize their effects. This gives you more control over your recovery and your life.
How can you transform your environment to help your recovery?
- To combat triggers around family dynamics and influences, psychotherapy can be helpful. It allows you to not only understand your past and how this has influenced your worldview and your capacity to cope with stress, but also accept and find ways to break those habits. Knowledge and acceptance (two major tenants of IGNTD Recovery) allow you to begin to make choices in life that are considered and thoughtful rather than simply a result of habit. Tip: If you have a particularly stressful family event coming up. it may be helpful to gain support from a friend, like a wingman/wingwoman ahead of the event. Lay out the particular relationships and interactions that might be triggering and ask for help in managing these ahead of the event. You’ll not only be better prepared when the situation arises, but you’ll have someone to help rescue you if you need it.
- Some people believe that if your friends abuse alcohol or drugs, then you must avoid them at all costs. But I don’t believe you have to stay away from all of these relationships; although initially, it can be useful to avoid the specific environments where your friends engage in the kind of behavior you want to avoid. Tip: Make it a habit to avoid particular hangouts at times when you expect the triggers and temptation to be increased. In my own history, when I was fully sober (and to this day to a large extent), I would leave parties at 11 p.m. or midnight — right around the time that some of my friends began frequenting the restroom every 30 minutes for their cocaine use and other recreational activities. Interestingly, when you don’t avoid these relationships but rather see them for what they are, you may discover that you want to let some of them go anyway. But the act of choice here becomes crucial.
- Avoiding social media is probably unrealistic also. But, you can make a rule that you only access social media briefly or within specific time frames. You can set a timer for five minutes and once the timer is up then you get off. This can stop you from falling down that rabbit hole of not only losing time on social media but also feeling bad about yourself. I’ll go one step further and recommend you only access social media when you’re feeling okay about yourself. If you’re having a bad day, pick up a phone and call a friend instead. Tip: I have made it a habit to regularly unfollow or hide content when I recognize that it makes me feel “less-than” or unworthy or otherwise plays on my insecurities. Make sure that the content you allow yourself to consume makes you feel strong, inspired, motivated and good. In this way social media can be a great asset.
- If you find video games, movies or television shows (or any other form of media) triggers your addiction, then pay close attention to what kind of media it is, how it makes you feel and the thoughts they provoke. You may choose to avoid these triggers for a while in order to keep you on track. Tip: If you want to truly combat their influence, see if you can expose yourself to some (be careful and deliberate with your choices here) of the content in order to desensitize your triggering. For instance, I couldn’t watch Breaking Bad for years because it mirrored my own meth use and selling. But after a few years, I decided to purposefully watch the show in order to remove the fear surrounding the triggering. Within a few episodes, I was essentially not at all triggered by it. What are you avoiding that you can use to your advantage in this way?
- The community that you live in plays a big part in the likelihood of abusing drugs. The most important first step here is the careful assessment and consideration of these norms. Many of us simply gloss over them, playing down their importance in forming our own habits and views on life. Tip: If you find your cultural norms play a significant role in your triggering, there are a few things that might help. Speaking openly with someone who is likeminded and who cares about you could help remove the shame and stigma around the topic. I often find that a simple conversation along the lines of “I feel really uncomfortable when we…” can be incredibly powerful as long as the other party is empathetic and non-judgmental. After such an open conversation, you can explore the beliefs set up by your cultural norms more deeply through ongoing discussion, psychotherapy, etc. When it comes to specific events and gatherings, your ally can become an incredibly powerful assistant through a similar method to that discussed in #1 above.
- In the case of learned environments and physical settings, it’s hard to overestimate their impact. Just for reference, it’s been shown that people can actually drink/use more in their preferred settings because their body is better prepared for the consumption and more able to “fight” it with opposing biological reactions. Think of the last time you drank/used at your favorite location (bar, bedroom, whatever) and think whether you’re able to consume more there yourself? Tip: Literally changing the actual physical environment can make an incredible difference here. Your brain associated the location, color, and smell with the activation of expected behavior. If it’s your bedroom where you drink, use, or act out, then move around your bed and furniture to make it not only look different, but feel different. Color the walls differently, put up some new art and completely alter the environment. It’s the quickest way to create a separation between habit and current behavior in that space.
Now that you’re aware of your environmental triggers, what’s next?
The purpose of this article is to help you drill down and identify triggers for your addiction or be able to better recognize the role of environmental influences in a loved one’s struggles.
Some people may feel that the downside to understanding these "risk factors" is people may be left feeling hopeless. Perhaps you feel like you have no hope because of where you live, or how you were brought up, or who you hang out with. I want to assure you that this is simply not true.
Knowledge is power. And when you understand yourself and your triggers and your environment you can make informed decisions. You can make choices that lead to a better quality of life, rather than succumbing to habit.
You can make small changes to your environment so they become protective factors for your addiction rather than risk factors.
In my IGNTD Recovery Program, I help people struggling with addictions get honest about their life to create hope rather than powerlessness. I’d love to see you there.