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The Role of Environment in Addiction and Recovery

Substance abuse has become alarmingly commonplace in our society. While information abounds about the many consequences of alcohol and drugs, more people experiment with addictive substances than ever before.

Although addiction has become a pressing issue and addiction information has greatly increased, people still use substances in unhealthy ways. Surveys show that at any given time, about one in ten Americans over the age of 12 will try an illicit drug recreationally in any given month. If you extend that term to “anytime in their lives,” the numbers become astonishingly higher.1

Take marijuana as an example. Marijuana is widely considered the least dangerous and most accessible of all illicit drugs, and almost half of the US—44 percent—admit to having tried marijuana at some point in their lives. Back in 1969, only six percent of Americans could admit to having had at least one prior experience with marijuana.1 When you consider that approximately one in 10 people who experiment with mind-altering substances become addicted, it’s not all that surprising that nearly 10 percent of the nationwide population—roughly equivalent to the entire state of Texas—is addicted to alcohol or drugs.2


For years, researchers have been searching for the causes of addiction. If we could determine what it is, exactly, that makes people susceptible to addiction—whether it’s a biological or genetic trait, social factors, one’s environment, some combination of these factors, or even something else entirely—we could potentially divert the development of addiction and cure those who have become chemically dependent.

With the advanced technologies that are available today, there’s particular excitement surrounding the genetic piece of the puzzle. However, with addiction having become such a major issue in all demographics, perhaps it’s time to turn our attention back to the environment.

The Environment That May Contribute to Addiction

But what exactly does one mean by ‘environment’? By definition, environment refers to the circumstances or conditions by which a person is surrounded.3 It’s a rather vague, blanket term that is often used to indicate a person’s immediate surroundings, generally consisting of a place that contains people and things. However, researchers have broken the definition of “environment” down into four primary domains: the family domain, the peer domain, the work or school domain, and the community domain.4

The Environment and Addiction: The Family Domain

The role of family in a person’s addiction is often reserved for discussions of biology or genetics. But while we’re genetically linked to our loved ones, there’s no denying that one’s family members also make up one’s overall home life or one’s home environment. The family domain refers to the social and circumstantial characteristics of a family rather than to any genetic material that may be shared between them, and there’s no question that the family domain can have a huge influence on whether or not a person develops a substance abuse problem.

Conversely, a person’s substance abuse has major, observable effects on his or her family members as well. This often results in poorer communication, decreased empathy and an overall reduction in the harmony of one’s household.5 Additionally, studies have found that families in which there are favorable attitudes toward mind-altering substances or in which there has been or is violence are much more likely to experience substance abuse problems.

Since the family domain and a person’s development of alcoholism or drug addiction are often connected, addicted people are frequently encouraged to seek treatment at inpatient or residential facilities, which separate them from home environments that may have contributed to their addictions.

Codependency issues in the family unit are also common, which may lead family members to inadvertently enable further substance use.

Therefore, most addiction treatment programs include and encourage family therapy, which discovers any codependency and enabling in the family unit so those behaviors can be addressed before the patient returns home. If there are issues in the family domain that could be attributed to a person’s substance abuse problem in some way, it’s important that those issues are resolved or else the recovering addict will have little chance of sustaining his or her sobriety.

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The Environment and Addiction: The Peer Domain

The peer domain consists of a person’s social group and the places where one congregates with friends. According to researchers at the University of Utah, friends and peers who abuse alcohol or drugs is the most significant contributor the development of a substance abuse problem.4

In fact, it’s been proven that a peer group—in addition to relationships with immediate family members—plays a central role in a person’s development and can even serve as a stand-in family for individuals who do not have stable, cohesive families.6

Therefore, it should come as little surprise that peers could likewise prove to be such a destructive influence as well. But peers can be just as instrumental to an addict’s recovery as they can be to an alcohol or drug problem. Specifically, sober peers and peers who are supportive of recovery can be observed providing encouragement and motivation to individuals in recovery. Similarly, people in recovery are encouraged to pursue relationships with other recovering acquaintances as that provides them with people to whom they can relate, giving and receiving advice during times of need or uncertainty.7

The Environment and Addiction: The Work or School Domain

While the peer domain is associated with a person’s chosen social circle, one’s work or school domain refers to the circumstances—and the environment’s inhabitants—to which he or she is obligated. A person’s demeanor at work or school is naturally going to be different from what it would be at home or with peers, and relationships with co-workers or fellow students are usually much less personal.

African businessman has ground cut beneath him. VectorA person’s work domain might have minimal influence on the development of his or her addiction, but sometimes the individual’s career is in one of a few industries in which substance abuse tends to be more common. In such industries—such as retail and food service—relaxed hiring procedures are a major draw to substance users who would be unable to pass drug screens, resulting in those industries containing higher rates of addiction among employees.8

Meanwhile, the school domain of adolescents and college students can be much more significant since school environments tend to be more social and consist of very concentrated demographics.

For both work and school domains, some of the biggest risk factors for substance abuse include the stress caused by a decrease in performance, forced participation and resistance to the commitment required by holding a job or attending school.

The Environment and Addiction: The Community Domain

Community is the fourth and final domain, and also happens to be another very significant potential contributor to alcoholism and drug addiction. The extent to which the community domain can contribute to a person becoming addicted is based on the extent of an individual’s involvement with his or her community. As well, communities in which very little substance abuse occurs would have very little chance of stimulating a person’s substance abuse.

illustration of crowd of peopleThe unfortunate reality is that there are very few communities that are untouched by substance abuse. In areas where favorable attitudes toward alcohol and drug abuse prevail, it’s much more likely that people who maintain community involvement could eventually adopt and act on those favorable attitudes.

However, community can be as helpful to one’s recovery as it can be instrumental in a person’s addiction.

Studies have shown that recovering addicts who become part of recovery communities—areas where there are higher concentrations of recovering addicts—are much more likely to remain sober than those who return to their home communities where they are isolated. The same effect has been observed in group homes for those in recovery, which are often called transitional living facilities or sober houses.

It is difficult to identify one specific environmental factor that is to blame for addiction. In reality, it’s likely that people develop addictions due to influences coming at them from all angles. But the important thing is to become aware of the many potential sources of influence so that one can take the necessary steps to mitigate them, steering away from what is too often a fatal disease.


1 McCarthy, Justin. “More Than Four in 10 Americans Say They Have Tried Marijuana.” Gallup. July 22, 2015.

2 Join Together Staff. “New Data Show Millions of Americans with Alcohol and Drug Addiction Could Benefit from Health Care Reform.” Partnership for Drug-Free Kids. September 28, 2010.

3 “Environment.” Def.1. May 12, 2017.

4 Lundberg, Kelly, MD. “Environmental Risk Factors.”The Science of Addiction: Genetics and the Brain. May, 2017.

5 Lander, Laura; Howsare, Janie and Byrne, Marilyn. “The Impact of Substance Use Disorders on Families and Children: From Theory to Practice.” Social Work Public Health. NIH. July 27, 2013.

6 Haugen, Peter T. et. al. “Family Relationships and Peer Influence.” Accessed May 2017.

7 Killeen, Melissa. “On the Role of Peers in Addiction Recovery.” The Fix. June 10, 2015.

8 Arlotta, C.J. “The Best Treatment for Drug Addicts is Community.” Forbes. September 25, 2015.

Written by Dane O’Leary