Risk Factors for Developing an Addiction

Content reviewed by Karen Rubenstein, LMFT

There are many misconceptions about addiction. One popular myth is that a person may only experience addiction if it runs in their family. In truth, genetic vulnerabilities are among the many risk factors that increase a person’s risk of developing an addiction.

Some people may not have addiction run in their family but experiment with alcohol or other drugs just one time. This seemingly innocent event may be enough to initiate the cycle of addiction starting in one’s life. It is imperative to understand the many risk factors associated with the development of addiction. By recognizing risk factors, you can work to prevent yourself and your family from falling victim to addiction by actively promoting protective factors.

Defining Risk Factors of Addiction and their Importance

Risk factors increase the susceptibility of someone developing or experiencing a particular condition. In this case, people who share risk factors for addiction are more likely to develop one at some point in their lives.

There are risk factors for everything, and in many cases, multiple risk factors to consider. For example, cigarette smoking is an undeniable risk factor for lung cancer. Obesity is a risk factor for heart disease. There are also generalized risk factors, such as aging or lack of exercise, making people more susceptible to developing chronic physical health conditions.

Recognizing risk factors are essential because they can help you and your family avoid physical and mental health problems. It can also keep you from fearing unlikely threats by knowing the facts. Consider how addiction affects everyone differently. Some people may develop a chronic habit after using a substance just one time, while others can drink in moderation without any issue. Risk factors can help to explain what factors make a person more susceptible to developing an addiction.

Genetic Risk Factors for Addiction

Addiction is a disease of the brain. The chemical reactions in your brain from substance use and addiction are different from any reaction produced from sober stimuli. One risk factor is heredity and associated family dynamics. When a person has addiction present in their family, their brain chemicals are already predisposed to addiction. This predisposition is why the effect of smoking cigarettes, for example, differs for each person. Some people that already have a hereditary risk factor may try and smoke a cigarette just one time and get hooked.

Another genetic risk factor is mental health. Suppose a person already has a mental health disorder. In that case, especially if it is undiagnosed or untreated, they are more likely to experience a co-occurring substance use disorder such as addiction. Some reasons for this include:

  • A person with unresolved mental health problems may turn to alcohol and other drugs to self-medicate, thus beginning the cycle of dependency and addiction
  • The same brain areas affected by mental health conditions are also affected by addiction
  • Substance use can bring mental health issues to light

Environmental Risk Factors for Developing Addiction

Several environmental risk factors increase an individual’s risk of developing an addiction. Within the family, some risk factors for youth may include:

  • Lack of parental involvement or inadequate supervision in a child’s life
  • Child neglect, abuse or maltreatment
  • Emotional problems during childhood
  • Parental depression
  • Hostile family environment
  • Normalized substance use by parents or siblings
  • Access to substances within the home environment

Within a community, risk factors may include:

  • Poverty
  • Neighborhood violence or crime
  • Peer rejection
  • Associating with substance-using peer groups
  • Low commitment to work or school
  • Low academic performance
  • Community norms that favor substance use
  • Experiencing traumatic events
  • Peer pressure

Within an individual, risk factors may include:

  • Temperament issues
  • Low self-esteem
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Poor social, communication and problem-solving skills
  • Unresolved emotional problems during childhood
  • Favorable attitudes towards drugs
  • Early substance use, such as experimentation

It is essential to recognize that not all of these factors can be avoided, such as experiencing traumatic events. It is vital that when unavoidable situations occur, a person has access to support resources to help them cope with difficult emotions healthily or beneficially. Similarly, not everyone who experiences a risk factor, such as poverty, will turn to alcohol and other drugs to cope. It is understood that many of these factors contribute to the development of addiction.

Drug-Specific Risk Factors for Developing Addiction

There is no question that some chemical substances are more addictive than others. Several drug-specific risk factors may explain why, including:

  • Drug of choice: drugs that produce physically painful withdrawals tend to contribute more to the development of addiction
  • Method of administration: drugs smoked or injected into the body go straight into your bloodstream and the brain, contributing to the development of addiction much faster than orally consumed drugs
  • Frequency and intensity of use: how often a person uses a substance and the greater the intensity can also increase the risk of addiction faster

Protective Factors that Reduce the Risk of Addiction

Many protective factors work to reduce the risk of addiction developing in your life. It is important to acknowledge these factors and instill them in your life to actively prevent addiction to the best of your ability. Protective factors within the family include:

  • Having set boundaries and structure
  • Parental monitoring and involvement
  • Supportive relationships with family members
  • Clear expectations for behavior and values

Protective factors within the community include:

  • Opportunities for engagement with community or school
  • Positive social norms
  • Clear expectations for behavior
  • Physical and psychological safety
  • Availability of faith-based resources
  • Access to after-school activities

Protective factors for an individual include:

  • Academic achievement
  • High self-esteem
  • Emotional self-regulation
  • Practical and healthy coping skills
  • Engagement with positive hobbies and social groups

Casa Palmera acknowledges the challenges of experiencing and recovering from substance use disorders, especially addiction. We are here to help you address the root causes of your substance use and help you overcome any obstacles that may deter you from achieving long-lasting recovery. To learn more about our treatment programs and options, contact us today.


This blog is for informational purposes only and should not be a substitute for medical advice. We understand that everyone’s situation is unique, and this content is to provide an overall understanding of substance use disorders. These disorders are very complex, and this post does not take into account the unique circumstances for every individual. For specific questions about your health needs or that of a loved one, seek the help of a healthcare professional.