By Sara Schapmann

Survival and self-preservation are human instincts. While no one dreams of becoming an alcoholic when they grow up, sometimes it happens, and usually for good reason. Counterintuitive as it is, alcohol abuse can be an unconscious survival mechanism. If you never learned proper coping skills to navigate life’s challenges or had the right resources to deal with mental issues or imperfect heredities, you do the best you can to get through them. Sometimes this means self-medicating with alcohol or drugs. Read on to learn more about what may be contributing to your alcohol use.

You Got the ‘Right’ Genes

If Mom, Dad or another family member suffered from alcoholism, your chances of following suit are good. While genetics aren’t the sole cause of alcoholism, they certainly can play a significant role. Genes may be responsible for about half of the factors that can contribute to your risk of developing the disease.  Research shows that having family with alcohol problems doubles your chances for having an alcohol use disorder.  Research also suggests that some people who abuse alcohol have an “alcohol gene,” which isn’t found in those without an alcohol problem.

Your Past Is Plaguing Your Present

Many people with addictions are unknowingly trying to self-medicate painful feelings from the past that get triggered in the present day. Research shows that adverse childhood experiences like past trauma increase the chances of alcohol abuse as an adolescent and adult. Sometimes past trauma is obvious like being in military combat, or enduring physical or sexual abuse. Other times, trauma is more covert, such as emotional neglect or enmeshment tendencies of a parent or caregiver.  Adverse childhood experiences also include growing up in a household with an addict or parent with a mental illness. Even if you are not the direct target of a traumatic experience, witnessing adversity or violence can have just as strong of a lasting, negative impact on adult functioning.

You’re Depressed or Anxious

You may be using alcohol to ease untreated or under-treated mental health issues. An epidemiological survey by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism found that alcoholics were almost four times more likely to suffer from clinical depression than people who did not abuse alcohol. Research also shows a strong relationship between anxiety and alcohol abuse. While alcohol may help you feel “up” for a while or grease the wheels for social interactions, its use will ultimately worsen your issues. Alcohol is a depressant and can produce or increase depression symptoms.  Anxiety is a common symptom of alcohol withdrawal, so ultimately alcohol backfires as a solution for angst and worry.

You Grew Up With Drinkers

Family members who drink regularly can influence your feelings and beliefs around alcohol use. Studies show that growing up in a home where parents were accepting of alcohol use increased adolescents’ chances of using alcohol. If Mom or Dad liked their liquor and let you imbibe every so often, you may be more susceptible to embracing a lifestyle that regularly includes alcohol.

The Perfect Storm

Often several of these contributing components come into play — genetics, lifestyle and trauma — creating the perfect storm for substance abuse. For example, a person may have a genetic predisposition for addiction. Combine that with a less-than-ideal childhood along with a dash of depression or anxiety and you have just the right condition to water the seeds of alcoholism.

On the other hand, a person who may be biologically inclined to abuse alcohol but who grows up in a healthy, empowering, supportive environment may have a better arsenal of coping skills and robust self-esteem needed to fight the pull of addiction. Yes, genetics can play a strong role in chemical dependency, but what about the twins in the studies who suggest “nurture” can counteract nature in some cases?

The Good News

Though these issues are difficult, achieving sobriety is possible with help. Data from national surveys indicate that over 23 million Americans are in recovery from substance abuse. Expert medical and behavioral advances in addiction treatment can help you maintain sobriety and beat the odds if you were dealt a dismal hand in the genetic card game. Trauma-focused therapies like EMDR, cognitive behavioral therapy and Somatic Experiencing® can help you heal deep-rooted trauma and gain resiliency. Research-backed medications and traditional and experiential therapies can help you manage mental health issues so you feel less compelled to self-medicate with alcohol. And 12-step and non-12-step self-help groups are available across the nation to provide critical peer support in recovery. Sobriety can be rewarding and fulfilling, and now it is more attainable than ever.


Choose a better life. Choose recovery.