Why Do Some People Become Addicted While Others Do Not?

A sad and depressed woman sitting down alone outdoors

No one can predict who will become addicted to drugs or alcohol and who will not. While there are various risk factors, some of the most potent ones appear to be genetic makeup, family history, mental illness, and the nature of the substance that is abused. Understanding these risk factors may help you come to terms with why someone you love may be suffering from an addiction.


Addiction is a disease and like many diseases it may have a genetic component. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, genetics are a high risk factor for addiction and may involve a 40-60% risk. Of course, researchers don’t think they’ll ever find just one gene responsible for addiction. Instead, it may be a combination of genetic factors that makes one person more susceptible to addiction than another.

Family History

Heredity aside, family can be a risk factor for the development of an addiction. For example, if one or both parents are alcoholics or suffered from another type of substance addiction while raising their children, those children are at increased risk for developing an addiction too, either during the teenage years or later in life. Family structure can pose a serious environmental risk that cannot be underestimated.

Mental Illness

A person who suffers from a mental disorder is at greater risk for developing an addiction particularly if they turn to drugs or alcohol to reduce their mental illness symptoms. For example, someone who suffers from anxiety may turn to alcohol to relieve their symptoms which can be quite debilitating. In many cases someone suffering from a mental disorder might even begin to abuse their prescription medications.

Xanax for example, is prescribed for people with anxiety but it’s a highly addictive drug. If your loved one has suffered from bouts of depression or has been diagnosed with a serious mental disorder, they are more vulnerable to addiction.

Substance of Abuse

Some types of substances are more addictive than others. For example, only 10% of marijuana users develop addiction. On the other hand, opiates like heroin or stimulants like cocaine are known to be far more addictive. Someone who abuses a powerful substance, therefore, is at greater risk to develop an addiction more quickly.

In addition, some substance addictions are more difficult to treat than others because of the nature of the addictive substance, which is why some substances such as meth are associated with higher relapse rates.

Risk factors aside, it’s still important to remember that anyone can develop an addiction. Someone who feels shy might turn to alcohol to “loosen up” in social situations. Someone who suffers a terrible breakup might thoughtlessly engage in drug use at a random party. The act of using is in itself a type of risk factor that everyone should be aware of when they decide to use an addictive substance for the first time, tenth time, or the 100th time. Yet, by understanding the risk factors thoroughly, you may begin to realize why some people become addicts and others do not.

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