Factors That Contribute to Substance Use Disorders

When we are born, no one knows whether we will develop a substance abuse problem but we can make a prediction based on predisposing characteristics. The chances of developing substance use disorders are typically based upon three major factors: biological, psychological, and sociological. These factors can mean the difference between a person who uses substances and one who abuses or is dependent on them.

Biological Factors 

Genetics plays an intricate role in the development of substance use disorders. The brain has a “pleasure pathway” that impacts its experience of reward. That pathway starts in a part of the brain called the ventral tegmental area, located in the midbrain. The pathway then progresses through the nucleus accumbens, which is located in the limbic system. At that time, it travels to the frontal cortex, which plays an important role in controlling the urge to abuse drugs and alcohol.

The frontal cortex contains a copious amount of neurons that are sensitive to the neurotransmitter dopamine. Chronic use of psychoactive substances can cause the brain to produce less dopamine. Substances such as heroin, amphetamines, and cocaine cause the brain’s dopamine receptors to become less sensitive. Therefore, if you were to stop using substances, your brain would not be able to immediately replace the lost dopamine which causes you to experience symptoms of withdrawal.

Other biological factors contribute to substance use disorders, such as the method of ingestion. Injecting, snorting, and smoking transmit substances to the brain much faster than taking them orally, so it produces a faster and more intense reaction. Additionally, psychoactive substances alter the brain’s reward center which causes cravings. Genetics, family history, stress, and metabolism are also biological factors that play a part in the development of substance use disorders.

Biological factors are especially significant because they cause damage to both your physical body and your emotional health. For example, you cannot develop verbal learning and motor skills when the level of dopamine in your body decreases. Chronic substance use can cause severe structural and functional changes in the part of your brain that is associated with cognition, emotion, and memory.

Psychosocial Factors

Substance use disorders can also be developed through social learning. You are more likely to develop the disorder if you have a parent or influential adult in your life that uses substances. Expectations of the substance’s ability to help you cope with stress are important as well. If you expect substances to relieve stress or if you use them as your primary coping mechanism, you are more likely to develop a substance use disorder.

If you do not have a family or friend support system you are more likely to drink or use drugs when you are overwhelmed or when experiencing social problems. You are also at higher risk if you possess characteristics such as the tendency to be impulsive, seek thrills or sensations, or exhibit antisocial behavior.

Sociocultural Factors

Sociocultural factors can contribute to both the development or absence of substance use disorders. You are less likely to develop a substance use disorder if you live in a place or are a part of a culture where substances are less common, restricted, or criminalized. Substance use can sometimes be misconstrued as something positive, making it easier for you to develop a disorder.

For example, substance use is typically more attractive to you if you suffer from chronic stress because it gives you an ability to “zone out” or “loosen up.” If you use substances in order to relax or be more social, substance use can seem like a good thing, which puts you at risk for developing a disorder.

Your family dynamic, socioeconomic status, peer influence, age of exposure, religious preference, and employment are also considered to be sociocultural factors that contribute to the development of substance use disorders. The rates of substance use disorders are higher if you live in poverty, are in an abusive or toxic relationship, or are exposed to some form of violence regularly. Children of heavy drinkers are more likely to use substances and develop a substance use disorder.

Other factors like age and gender differences contribute to substance use disorders. For example, drinking is usually more acceptable for men than women because drinking is typically associated with masculinity. Because of that, men are more likely to feel pressured or expected to drink in social settings. Men tend to feel intoxicated at slower rates than women, allowing them to consume larger amounts.

Know the Factors

Understanding the risk factors that lead to substance abuse disorders is the first and most effective way to avoid it. Some factors are beyond your control, such as genetics or exposure to substances. However, there are highly effective treatment methods that can help you avoid the other factors that can be affected.

Substance use disorders can be difficult to overcome, but it is not impossible to get sober. If you also suffer from mental illness, it is important to get help for that as well as substance use. You can conquer addiction no matter what biological, psychological, and sociocultural factors apply to you—you always have the ability to make choices in life. Drug and alcohol treatment gives you the tools and strategies that can help you protect your biological, psychological, and sociocultural vulnerabilities. Here at Valiant Living, we can help you get your life back on track. We treat both substance use disorder and any co-occurring mental illness that may be contributing to your problems. It is important to seek treatment for both to prevent relapse. If you or someone you love suffers from a substance use disorder, call Valiant Living and speak with one of our friendly staff members at (303) 952-5035.