Original Article By Adi Jaffi, Ph.D. Published in Psychology Today Dr. Jaffi discusses how your environment is influencing your addiction. 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.
- 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.
With the many psychological, social, biological, and spiritual factors, it’s no mystery why you many still be wondering how your environment is influencing your addiction.