Not all addicts are violent, and those who are may be violent only to themselves and not to others. But the association between drug addiction and violence is strong enough that anyone considering substance abuse treatment should be prepared to address anger, frustration, and other feelings and behaviors that can lead to violence.
Not only do addictive substances cause different symptoms, they cause different effects in different people. The interactions between substances and the brain follow many neural pathways. For example, certain drugs in some people activate aggression-specific brain processes. Some drugs allow people to grant themselves “permission” to behave violently.
And there’s the unpleasant fact that violence has a place in drug culture (often for “enforcement” purposes) and that some people turn to violence to obtain the means to continue to afford their addiction. Researchers are learning more about the link between addiction and violence so that they may understand people with addictions better and create better treatment programs for them.
Aggressive Behavior Itself Can Be Addictive
Aggressive behavior itself may be addictive in some people, with or without drug addiction, and people who end up incarcerated for violent acts are likely to re-offend. The “addictive” property of violence in some people has similarities to drug addiction. For one thing, such ones are highly motivated to seek out scenarios where they can display violence, and for another, it is common for someone who has been in trouble for violence to “relapse” in a similar way to how some addicts relapse after substance abuse treatment.
Addiction and Aggression Toward Others
Up to three-quarters of people who begin substance abuse treatment report that they have engaged in violence such as physical assault, and there is a perception that such people have difficulty controlling their emotions and are more likely to act impulsively. One study in the UK found that men with gambling addictions are more likely to behave violently toward others, and this tendency appears to be in almost direct correlation with the severity of the gambling addiction. Interestingly, this association between gambling addiction and violence toward others is strong even when researchers adjust the data to account for things like whether the person also has a mental illness.
Addiction and Aggression Toward Oneself
People with drug addiction, alcoholism, gambling addiction, or some other addiction are not just potentially dangerous to others, but also to themselves. In particular, individuals with alcoholism are likely to report suicidal thoughts or prior attempts at suicide. One study of more than 6,000 adults in substance abuse treatment found that those who had committed violence like rape, assault, or murder were more likely than other addicts to report having tried suicide. A comparison between people who committed suicide and people killed in accidents found that violent behavior in the last year of life was associated with a higher suicide risk, even when researchers control for alcohol abuse, mental illness, and other risk factors.
Mouse Studies Providing Potential Clues
A recent study of mice by researchers at the National Institute on Drug Abuse Intramural Research Program found strong parallels between aggression and addictive behaviors. Around 19 percent of mice were identified as compulsive aggression seekers. These mice could press a lever to show aggression to a smaller, subordinate mouse, and the aggression-addicted mice worked harder for the chance to be aggressive toward other mice even if it meant they had to do without food. Researchers believe that this tendency to aggression addiction may involve the same motivational circuits in the brain that are disrupted by drug addiction, and the association may occur in humans as well.
Not all people with drug addictions are violent, but in some people, the use of drugs or alcohol or engagement in addictive behavior like gambling seems to trigger aggressive behavior. That aggression may be directed at others, or at themselves, putting them at higher risk for suicide.
Therefore, it’s essential that when an addict seeks out substance abuse treatment, they find a program that addresses the problem in a holistic manner, so that anger or aggression issues can be worked on as well and so that the likelihood of re-offending will be lower.