Addiction is a serious disease that affects brain function and behavior. Your son’s risk of becoming addicted increases with heavy substance abuse. While most people who abuse drugs or alcohol don’t develop an addiction to them, some do. Whether your son becomes addicted depends on a number of factors.

Understanding addiction and its most typical underlying causes can help you determine whether your son has developed an addiction or is at a high risk of becoming addicted.

Addiction Starts with Substance Abuse

Substance abuse is the act of using drugs or alcohol in a way that causes problems. These problems may be related to relationships, physical or mental health, finances or legal issues. The most common form of substance abuse is binge drinking, which is drinking enough in the space of two hours to bring blood alcohol content up to .08 percent.

Substance abuse is a choice, but once an addiction develops, choice is no longer a factor in using the substance. Over time, the heavy abuse of drugs or alcohol causes changes in the structures and functions of the brain’s memory, learning and reward systems. The brain makes ironclad associations between the substance use and the pleasure it produces. Eventually, this causes powerful cravings for the substance. Addiction is characterized by the compulsive use of drugs or alcohol despite the negative consequences the use causes.

Your Son’s Risk of Becoming Addicted: Common Risk Factors

Addiction almost always has underlying causes. Genetics, or a family history of addiction, accounts for about half of your son’s risk of becoming addicted. The other half of the risk comes from environment, personality, psychology and biology.

The most common underlying causes of addiction include mental illness, chronic stress and a history of trauma.

Mental illness, such as anxiety or depression, is a major factor in developing an addiction. The National Institute on Drug Abuse stresses that more than half of all people who abuse drugs or alcohol have a co-occurring mental disorder.1

Many people use drugs or alcohol to self-medicate the symptoms of mental illness, such as using alcohol to reduce feelings of depression. But drugs and alcohol almost always make a mental illness worse. They can even cause the onset of a mental illness where one didn’t previously exist. Your son’s risk of becoming addicted is elevated if he has a mental illness and abuses drugs or alcohol.

Chronic stress leads to a decrease in behavior control and increases impulsiveness, according to a study published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences.2 It also commonly leads to substance abuse as a way to relax and attempt to reduce the stress. Some common stressors that may be behind an addiction include a dysfunctional home life, poverty, illness, the loss of a relationship or problems at work or school.

A history of trauma, such as being the victim of an accident, violence, abuse or other traumatic event, can lead to heavy substance abuse as a way to repress memories, curb nightmares, reduce insomnia and ease feelings of fear and vulnerability.

Reducing the Risks

Reducing your son’s risk of becoming addicted is largely a matter of addressing any underlying issues. If your son has a mental illness, getting it under control with therapy or medication—or a combination of these—can go a long way toward curbing heavy substance abuse. Similarly, getting counseling to work through chronic stress or trauma is essential for helping your son cope with these without drugs or alcohol.

If an addiction has already developed, a high-quality treatment program can help your son address the underlying issues behind the addiction and develop essential coping skills to handle stress, cravings and other triggers. Treatment promotes long-term recovery and can help to restore your son’s life.