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Understanding factors that lead to drug addiction can aid in recovery

By Caroline Kahiu | Jan 25th 2022 | 3 min read

Those who think addiction is a choice or merely a behavioural defect may be unaware of how early development can influence someone’s vulnerability to addiction, or other health-related issues later in life. The question of how attachment styles precede drug addiction remains open.

According to Bowlby and Ainsworth, the attachment theory focuses on the relationship between a primary caregiver and a child. To them, children develop a sense of security when their primary caregivers are available and responsive to their needs. Securely attached children tend to develop a “secure base script” and “building blocks” that act as filters in decision making and future social behaviour. The way people learn to connect to their primary caregivers gives them a preview of other relationships they will have in future, alongside mechanisms to deal with positive and negative aspects of life.

Similarly, research has proven that an attachment style may have a physiological impact on children through activation of the stress-response system which can lead to detrimental, long-term effects on physical and mental health. Clinicians use “attachment strategies” to talk about the ways children cope with and survive unstable and/or unsafe caregivers or environments. When the attachment is compromised and insecurity checks in, individuals may seek out other methods to self-soothe times of distress. Thus, drug misuse in a sense shelters the individual from relational vulnerability becoming a solution and the consequence of inability to develop and maintain healthy attachments. A drug can therefore create the feeling of having a secure base and addictive behaviours can be understood as misguided attempts at self-regulation.

Treatment of substance use disorders should aim to address attachment traumas that could have interrupted one’s primary attachment relationship such as neglect, abuse or loss. Trauma survivors may also abuse drugs and avoid close interpersonal relationships in attempts to manage negative and intrusive memories. Because these individuals have an inability to recognise and regulate their own feelings and sense of self, they may act as though they do not need close interpersonal relationships. Such disengagement from self and others can produce distress and create further reliance on substances in place of what would be healthy connections and attachments.

For professionals offering substance use treatment and recovery support, it is helpful to be aware of the client’s attachment styles and reflect on their upbringing. Successful recovery can be achieved when underlying trauma such as problematic family affairs are dealt with as they may lead a client to substance use as a coping mechanism. Lambert Oigara, a clinical psychologist, asserts that cognitive-behavioural therapy can help rewire the brain to overcome the adverse effects of unhealthy attachment styles and teach clients how to deal with their feelings more productively. “Each client has a unique attachment style and there is need for a holistic approach that incorporates primary caregivers in the road to recovery,” he adds.  

With addiction becoming more prevalent, it is evident that there are more underlying factors that can lead to drug addiction. Being mindful of these risk factors can aid in addiction recovery and the upbringing of future generations.

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