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How Genetics Contribute to Substance Abuse

If you abuse substances — whether drugs, alcohol, or food — it isn’t because you lack willpower or are a weak person. Substance abuse is a disease that originates in your brain.

Some people are more susceptible to substance abuse than others because of inherited genes. But just because you come from a family of substance abusers, that doesn’t mean that you can’t live addiction-free. 

The expert counselors at The Soho Center for Mental Health Counseling, in Greenwich Village in downtown Manhattan, New York City, diagnose and treat a variety of substance abuse disorders. Here’s what you need to know about how genes figure into substance abuse and why they aren’t the only thing that matters.

DNA is not destiny

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, a division of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), only half of a person’s risk for being addicted to a substance is inherited. Researchers came to that conclusion by looking at identical twins, fraternal twins, siblings, and adoptees, and the ways in which they abused — or didn’t abuse — substances. 

If substance abuse runs in your family and you currently struggle with the same issue, you may have inherited genes that make you more susceptible to addiction. Although genetics is a fascinating story and an important story, it isn’t the whole story. You’re more than just your genes.

Substance abuse is learned, too

If you grew up in a family with substance abuse or were surrounded with peers or friends who abused substances, you may have learned to use substances because you watched the behaviors of people around you. You may have turned to a substance to deal with a stressful situation, such as a divorce, death, or feelings of depression or anxiety. Although the substance gives you a temporary relief, when the effect wears off, you’re still faced with the problem. Now you also have an urge to abuse the substance again for relief.

Substance abuse changes your brain

Alcohol and drugs that are used recreationally, such as opioids, trigger the reward system in your brain. Your brain releases dopamine, which makes you feel euphoric. The drugs also alter the way the nerves in your brain act.

Drugs like marijuana and heroin are close in structure to your own neurotransmitters — the chemicals in your brain that let nerves talk to one another or to other cells in your body. However, since the drugs aren’t identical to neurotransmitters, they trigger abnormal reactions and communications.

Over time, these abnormal interactions change the structure of your brain in important ways. That’s why you may have trouble making good decisions, paying attention, or even remembering to eat or take care of yourself.

Stress also changes your brain

If you grew up or live in a stressful environment or experienced trauma, those events change the way your brain works, too. In fact, living through traumatic events may make your brain crave relief in the form of drugs and other substances.

You don’t really need the substances

Luckily, you can find relief in other ways. Getting support helps you identify and deal with the stresses in your life that may have contributed to your addiction. Just as drugs change your brain and make you crave more drugs, gradually withdrawing them or replacing them with other, less harmful drugs trains your brain to work without them.

At The Soho Center for Mental Health Counseling, our counselors custom-design a treatment strategy based on your unique background, current addictions, and goals. Therapies and recommendations may include:

Your genes are not your destiny. If you’re struggling with substance abuse, get help by contacting us today.  Use our online form, or call our friendly staff during office hours. We also offer teletherapy through confidential and affordable video/phone consultations.

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