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Why do Some People Get Addicted and Others Don’t? Understanding Risk Factors for Addiction

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Plenty of people experiment with substances, from alcohol to marijuana and even cocaine. While some people can use drugs and alcohol without becoming addicted, others fall into a cycle of substance abuse, dependence, and full-blown addiction. But why do some people get addicted and others don’t?

According to the National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics, 50% of people aged 12 or older have used illicit drugs at least once. Out of those individuals, 25.4% suffer from a substance use disorder.[1]

Addiction develops due to an array of underlying circumstances. Certain people face specific risk factors that make them more prone to addiction than others. While anyone can get addicted to a substance after repetitive use, some individuals find themselves suffering from the condition after only taking drugs once or twice.

Understanding the risk factors for addiction can help you or your loved ones take preventative measures to ensure that you do not develop a substance use disorder.

Risk Factors for Addiction

One of the reasons why some people get addicted to drugs while others don’t is that they have underlying risk factors that their peers do not face. For example, having a family history of addiction, suffering from mental health conditions, or experiencing a traumatic event puts you at an increased risk of developing an addiction.

Individuals who do not have these underlying risk factors may be less likely to abuse and become addicted to drugs or alcohol.

The common risk factors for addiction include:


According to the American Psychological Association, “At least half of a person’s susceptibility to drug addiction can be linked to genetic factors.”[2]

Genes are functional units of DNA that provide the information responsible for directing your body’s basic cellular functions. Genes determine what color your hair will be, how tall you are, and even how susceptible you are to developing certain diseases like heart attacks, diabetes, or addiction.

However, it is important to note that genetics are never solely responsible for the development of addiction. If you have a genetic predisposition to addiction, you must also suffer from other risk factors to develop a substance use disorder. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “research shows that a person’s health is the result of dynamic interactions between genes and the environment.”[3]

Mental Health

When you suffer from a mental health condition, you are more likely to develop substance abuse issues. This is especially true if your mental illness is left untreated because mental disorders can be extremely difficult to cope with, often causing individuals to seek out forms of self-medication.

While any mental health issue can put you at an increased risk of developing an addiction, certain illnesses are highly linked to substance abuse. For example, bipolar disorder often causes people who are experiencing mania to engage in impulsive and risky behaviors like abusing drugs or alcohol.

According to the National Institute on Mental Health, “brain changes in people with mental disorders may enhance the rewarding effects of substances, making it more likely they will continue to use the substance.”[4]

Traumatic Experiences

When someone experiences something traumatic, they often deal with difficult emotions and painful memories. Without professional treatment, the symptoms of past trauma can become so difficult to cope with that you begin participating in unhealthy coping mechanisms. More often than not, this leads to self-medication with drugs and alcohol.

According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, trauma exposure led to substance abuse in up to 76% of individuals.[5]

A history of trauma is one of the most common risk factors for addiction. Because of this, people who have suffered from a traumatic event should always seek counseling to process their trauma before it impacts their lives further.

Early Use

The large majority of people who suffer from addiction report abusing substances in their adolescent years. When you abuse drugs or alcohol before your brain is fully developed, you may experience changes in your brain that put you at an increased risk of addiction.

Substance abuse can affect adolescent brain development by:

  • Creating memory issues
  • Ingraining expectations of unhealthy habits into brain circuitry
  • Inhibiting your development of perceptual abilities
  • Reducing your ability to experience pleasure naturally
  • Interfering with neurotransmitters and damaging important connections within the brain
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Keeping this in mind, abusing substances as a child or a teen increases your risk of developing an addiction for several reasons. One of the main reasons is that your impulse control is not fully developed until your mid to late twenties. When you are abusing substances as an adolescent, your ability to control how much and often you use drugs is extremely low.

Find Help for Yourself or a Loved One

Just because you have the risk factors for addiction does not mean you will develop it. However, if you do abuse drugs and alcohol, your chances of becoming addicted are extremely high. Regardless of your history, anyone can become addicted to drugs or alcohol, so it is important to care for your mental health, address any past traumas, and avoid substance abuse–especially when addiction issues run in your family. Unfortunately, preventing addiction can be difficult when you do not have the resources or support you need. If you or a loved one find yourself suffering from a substance use disorder, professional treatment can help you gain the tools you need to recover. Contact Woburn Wellness today for more information on our drug and alcohol rehab program.


  1. https://drugabusestatistics.org/
  2. https://www.apa.org/monitor/2008/06/genes-addict
  3. https://nida.nih.gov/publications/drugfacts/genetics-epigenetics-addiction
  4. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/substance-use-and-mental-health
  5. https://www.nctsn.org/sites/default/files/resources/making_the_connection_trauma_substance_abuse.pdf
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Medically Reviewed By

Inessa Maloney, MS, LMHC Clinical Director
Learn about Inessa Maloney

Inessa Maloney, MS, LMHC has been dedicated to the mental health and substance abuse field for a decade, providing her expertise to guarantee quality and accuracy.

  • Specializes in outpatient services with a focus on substance abuse
  • Expertise in reality-based therapy, CBT/DBT, and motivational interviewing
  • Holds a Master’s Degree in Professional Counseling
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