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How Do You Protect Yourself With a Family History of Addiction?

How Do You Protect Yourself With a Family History of Addiction?

Much of your addiction risk is influenced by your family history. Genes and the environment both play a significant role in how addiction is passed down in families. Research has identified many gene variations that appear to be related to substance use disorders.

These aren’t “addiction genes” per se but rather they affect different aspects of your physiology. For example, genes related to how well you metabolize alcohol and its intermediate products, how your dopamine system responds to alcohol, and how active your brain’s fear centers are may all contribute to your risk of developing an alcohol use disorder. 

However, there is also a saying that genes load the gun but the environment pulls the trigger. In other words, having a genetic predisposition to substance use issues doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll develop an addiction. Your odds are significantly higher if you grow up in an environment where you feel unsafe or neglected, where you’ve experienced trauma, or where your parent or guardian had substance use issues.

Children are especially sensitive to trauma and chaos and they often learn substance use behaviors from their parents. As a result, if you have a parent or sibling with a substance use disorder, you are at much greater risk for developing a substance use issue yourself. The following tips can help limit your risk.



Ask About Your Family History


Addiction, even now, is a largely invisible disease. Families want to protect their loved ones’ reputations and people with substance use are often very good at hiding it. However, if your relatives have struggled with substance use, you need to know about it. Ask your relatives about your family history. Be curious about that aunt that no one ever seems to hear from, what your parents were like before you came along, or that grandparent who died at a suspiciously young age. 


Limit Your Exposure to Drugs and Alcohol


If you’re concerned about your own addiction risk, the safest bet is just not to drink or use drugs. If you do drink, set strict limits for yourself. What those limits are, depends on your situation and how worried you are about your risk.

If both of your parents had an alcohol use disorder, you might not want to drink at all but if you had an uncle with a drinking problem and your other risk factors are low, perhaps you’ll feel safe having a drink with dinner now and then. When in doubt, err on the side of caution. It’s much easier to avoid addiction than to recover from it.


Know the Red Flags


It’s also important to know the red flags of addiction. This is true even if you have decided to abstain completely. Depending on your risk factors, you may also be vulnerable to process addictions, such as gambling, shopping, sex, or eating, so being aware of addiction red flags, in general, is a good idea. The trouble is that really clear signs tend to come too late. These are things like getting a DUI, losing your job, having serious relationship issues as a result of addiction, and so on. 


Addiction typically creeps up on you slowly and by the time you realize what’s happening, it’s already hard to get clear of it. If you pay attention, you might notice addictive behavior before it becomes very hard to change course. For example, you might notice that you’re drinking every day, even if you’re only having one or two drinks.

That might be fine for most people but if you have an elevated risk, it might be time to take a break. If you feel like you need drugs or alcohol to relax, that’s another pretty clear sign because it indicates you may have begun to develop a physical dependence. 


Needing more to feel any effect is another sign of dependence, as is feeling achy, jittery, shaky, or irritable when you go for a few days without drugs or alcohol. Also, beware if you find yourself lying or being deceptive about your drug or alcohol use. If you notice any of these signs, take action immediately, whether it’s talking to a therapist, addiction counselor, or doctor, or going to a 12-step meeting.


Talk to a Therapist


One of the best ways to preempt a substance use disorder is to talk to a therapist, even if you’re not sure if you need therapy. As noted above, genes are only part of the equation. Most people seeking help for addiction also have a co-occurring mental health issue, such as major depression, anxiety disorder, PTSD, bipolar disorder, ADHD, and others.

Substance use often begins as a way of self-medicating these conditions. If you did grow up in a house with addiction, it’s likely that you have some issues stemming from that experience and it’s better to address them on your own terms rather than wait for addiction to derail your life. If you don’t know what to tell your therapist, just say that your parents struggled with addiction and you don’t want to fall into the same trap. You certainly won’t be the first.


Make Your Doctor Aware of Your Concerns


Unfortunately, much of the opioid crisis in the US is a result of people using prescriptions as directed by their doctors. They would get these prescriptions for chronic pain or pain following a medical procedure, use them for far too long, and end up addicted, often switching to street drugs like heroin.

Doctors are typically far more cautious about prescribing opioids these days but it’s still important to make your doctor aware of any family history of addiction, just as you would make your doctor aware of any family history of cancer or heart disease. There are often non-addictive treatment alternatives and at the very least, you can take precautions against overusing potentially addictive medication. 


Talk to Your Kids When They’re Ready


Finally, make sure your own kids know about the family history of addiction when they’re ready. This should be part of an overall approach to teaching your kids about drugs and alcohol from a young age. For example, when you give a young child cold medicine, you can remind them that they should only take medicine from you or a doctor, and scale up the lessons as they age.

At a certain point, they will need to know if they have a genetic vulnerability to addiction. This point may come much sooner than you realize since early experimentation with drugs and alcohol is another major factor in addiction risk.


Genes, epigenetics, and early environment play a major role in our lives, but they aren’t destiny. By taking sensible precautions, keeping an eye out for warning signs, addressing problems early, and taking care of your mental health, you can avoid the trap of addiction. If you do end up developing a substance use issue, help is available.


At The Foundry, we know that the roots of addiction are complex. We involve the entire family in treatment to create a supportive home environment through healthy boundaries and better communication. We also use evidence-based methods to treat co-occurring conditions and help you live a happier, more fulfilling life free of drugs and alcohol. For more information, call us at (844) 955-1066.


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