7 Bio-Psycho-Social Issues

One of the most significant contributions to the assessment and treatment of addictions is the bio-psycho-social (BPS) model. This holistic concept allows us to consider a range of factors that influence the development and maintenance of addictive behavior.

Further, using a BPS approach to substance use disorders allows us to identify the context in which problematic drug use occurs (Buchmann, Skinner, & Illies, 2011). Although substance use disorder is a primary diagnosis, it does not occur in isolation. By recognizing individuals as whole people – with a rich history that involves friends, family, jobs, living environments, religious beliefs, personal values, and life experiences – we can better understand how harmful substance use emerged and what might help to change their unhealthy using patterns. A BPS model provides a foundation for understanding both the causes of addictive disorders and the best treatments for them.

Dna, Project Lumina, Walter Waymann

The BPS model also fits well with the definition of addiction developed by the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM), which incorporates physiology, psychology, and environment. ASAM utilizes an assessment format with six dimensions on which client concerns are evaluated prior to entering treatment. Those six ASAM dimensions include:

  1. Risk of intoxication and withdrawal
  2. Biomedical complications
  3. Cognitive, emotional, and behavioral issues
  4. Readiness to change
  5. Relapse/continued use risk
  6. Recovery environment

These dimensions can be broken down to match the three parts of the BPS framework. Dimensions one and two refer to biological concerns; dimensions three and four refer to psychological concerns; dimensions five and six refer to social concerns. The video below provides an overview of how the ASAM dimensions are applied by professional addictions counselors.

Check your understanding of the ASAM assessment dimensions using the flashcards below:

Each of the six dimensions holds a key to the disease of addiction. The first two dimensions, the biological categories, uncover how physiology influences drug use. This might include pain management, physical disabilities, use of medications, or using to avoid withdrawal.
Dimensions three and four describe individual characteristics such as emotional needs, behavioral concerns, and motivation. Earlier in the book, we discussed the role of trauma and co-occurring disorders in the development of substance use disorder. Unresolved trauma and mental health problems belong to this psychological aspect of the BPS assessment. Having a working knowledge of these concerns provides insight into how addiction emerges, as well as what needs to be included in a comprehensive plan of treatment. Importantly, it also points to addiction as a chronic illness, one which requires ongoing maintenance to manage successfully.
The final two dimensions, five and six, incorporate social and environmental influences on the individual. Here we evaluate whether the people, places, and things in the person’s life are supportive of sobriety or detrimental to the recovery process. One of the great struggles of the addictions field is that we are excellent at getting people sober, but we are poor at keeping them sober. The risk of relapse increases when “clients . . . do not live in environments that support recovery” (Polcin, Korcha, Bond, & Galloway, 2010).
Thus, beyond managing withdrawal and promoting abstinence, treatment programs must emphasize the need for sober housing, stable employment, and a network of supportive contacts that nurture the recovering person’s long-term sobriety.

Key Takeaways

  • Addiction is a multi-dimensional problem.
  • Recovery requires long-term solutions that address medical, psychological, and social concerns.



Buchman, D. Z., Skinner, W., & Illes, J. (2010). Negotiating the Relationship Between Addiction, Ethics, and Brain Science. AJOB Neuroscience1(1), 36–45. https://doi.org/10.1080/21507740903508609

Hunt, A. (2014) Expanding the biopsychosocial model: The active reinforcement model of addiction. Graduate Student Journal of Psychology, 15, 57-69.

Polcin, D. L., Korcha, R., Bond, J., & Galloway, G. (2010). Eighteen Month Outcomes for Clients Receiving Combined Outpatient Treatment and Sober Living Houses. Journal of substance use15(5), 352–366. https://doi.org/10.3109/14659890903531279

Poudel, An., Sharma, C, Gautam S., & Poudel Am. (2016). Psychosocial problems among individuals with substance use disorders in drug rehabilitation centers.  Substance Abuse Treatment, Prevention, and Policy 11(28), 1-10. https://doi.org/10.1186/s13011-016-0072-3

Biology of Addiction

(Excerpted from the National Institutes of Health)

People with addiction lose control over their actions. They crave and seek out drugs, alcohol, or other substances no matter what the cost—even at the risk of damaging friendships, hurting family, or losing jobs. What is it about addiction that makes people behave in such destructive ways? And why is it so hard to quit?

NIH-funded scientists are working to learn more about the biology of addiction. They’ve shown that addiction is a long-lasting and complex brain disease, and that current treatments can help people control their addictions. But even for those who’ve successfully quit, there’s always a risk of the addiction returning, which is called relapse.

The biological basis of addiction helps to explain why people need much more than good intentions or willpower to break their addictions.

“A common misperception is that addiction is a choice or moral problem, and all you have to do is stop. But nothing could be further from the truth,” says Dr. George Koob, director of NIH’s National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “The brain actually changes with addiction, and it takes a good deal of work to get it back to its normal state. The more drugs or alcohol you’ve taken, the more disruptive it is to the brain.”

Researchers have found that much of addiction’s power lies in its ability to hijack and even destroy key brain regions that are meant to help us survive.

A healthy brain rewards healthy behaviors—like exercising, eating, or bonding with loved ones. It does this by switching on brain circuits that make you feel wonderful, which then motivates you to repeat those behaviors. In contrast, when you’re in danger, a healthy brain pushes your body to react quickly with fear or alarm, so you’ll get out of harm’s way. If you’re tempted by something questionable—like eating ice cream before dinner or buying things you can’t afford—the front regions of your brain can help you decide if the consequences are worth the actions.

But when you’re becoming addicted to a substance, that normal hardwiring of helpful brain processes can begin to work against you. Drugs or alcohol can hijack the pleasure/reward circuits in your brain and hook you into wanting more and more. Addiction can also send your emotional danger-sensing circuits into overdrive, making you feel anxious and stressed when you’re not using drugs or alcohol. At this stage, people often use drugs or alcohol to keep from feeling bad rather than for their pleasurable effects.

To add to that, repeated use of drugs can damage the essential decision-making center at the front of the brain. This area, known as the prefrontal cortex, is the very region that should help you recognize the harms of using addictive substances.

“Brain imaging studies of people addicted to drugs or alcohol show decreased activity in this frontal cortex,” says Dr. Nora Volkow, director of NIH’s National Institute on Drug Abuse. “When the frontal cortex isn’t working properly, people can’t make the decision to stop taking the drug—even if they realize the price of taking that drug may be extremely high, and they might lose custody of their children or end up in jail. Nonetheless, they take it.”

Scientists don’t yet understand why some people become addicted while others don’t. Addiction tends to run in families, and certain types of genes have been linked to different forms of addiction. But not all members of an affected family are necessarily prone to addiction. “As with heart disease or diabetes, there’s no one gene that makes you vulnerable,” Koob says.

Other factors can also raise your chances of addiction. “Growing up with an alcoholic; being abused as a child; being exposed to extraordinary stress—all of these social factors can contribute to the risk for alcohol addiction or drug abuse,” Koob says. “And with drugs or underage drinking, the earlier you start, the greater the likelihood of having alcohol use disorder or addiction later in life.”

Teens are especially vulnerable to possible addiction because their brains are not yet fully developed—particularly the frontal regions that help with impulse control and assessing risk. Pleasure circuits in adolescent brains also operate in overdrive, making drug and alcohol use even more rewarding and enticing.

Although there’s much still to learn, we do know that prevention is critical to reducing the harms of addiction. “Childhood and adolescence are times when parents can get involved and teach their kids about a healthy lifestyle and activities that can protect against the use of drugs,” Volkow says. “Physical activity is important, as well as getting engaged in work, science projects, art, or social networks that do not promote use of drugs.”

Source: National Institutes of Health. 2015. Biology of addiction: Drugs and alcohol can hijack your brain. News in Health Newsletter (October 2015). https://newsinhealth.nih.gov/2015/10/biology-addiction

Drug Cultures, Recovery Cultures

A significant factor in the development and maintenance of addictive behavior is the context in which the behavior occurs. Drug-using rituals are often an ingrained part of life for people with substance use disorders. These deep-seated habits support ongoing use of the mind-altering substance.

Substance users, loved ones, and treatment providers need to realize that significant lifestyle changes are frequently required to replace the culture of addiction with a culture of recovery.  In the following passage, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) shares its insights into the role of drug cultures.

From SAMHSA Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) 59: Improving Cultural Competence

This chapter aims to explain that people who use drugs participate in a drug culture, and further, that they value this participation. However, not all people who abuse substances are part of a drug culture. White (1996) draws attention to a set of individuals whom he calls “acultural addicts.” These people initiate and sustain their substance use in relative isolation from other people who use drugs. Examples of acultural addicts include the medical professional who does not have to use illegal drug networks to abuse prescription medication, or the older, middle-class individual who “pill shops” from multiple doctors and procures drugs for misuse from pharmacies. Although drug cultures typically play a greater role in the lives of people who use illicit drugs, people who use legal substances—such as alcohol—are also likely to participate in such a culture (Gordon et al. 2012). Drinking cultures can develop among heavy drinkers at a bar or a college fraternity or sorority house that works to encourage new people to use, supports high levels of continued or binge use, reinforces denial, and develops rituals and customary behaviors surrounding drinking. In this chapter, drug culture refers to cultures that evolve from drug and alcohol use.

The Relationship Between Drug Cultures and Mainstream Culture

To some extent, subcultures define themselves in opposition to the mainstream culture. Subcultures may reject some, if not all, of the values and beliefs of the mainstream culture in favor of their own, and they will often adapt some elements of that culture in ways quite different from those originally intended (Hebdige 1991Issitt 2009;). Individuals often identify with subcultures—such as drug cultures—because they feel excluded from or unable to participate in mainstream society. The subculture provides an alternative source of social support and cultural activities, but those activities can run counter to the best interests of the individual. Many subcultures are neither harmful nor antisocial, but their focus is on the substance(s) of abuse, not on the people who participate in the culture or their well-being.

Mainstream culture in the United States has historically frowned on most substance use and certainly substance abuse (Corrigan et al. 2009White 19791998). This can extend to legal substances such as alcohol or tobacco (including, in recent years, the increased prohibition against cigarette smoking in public spaces and its growing social unacceptability in private spaces). As a result, mainstream culture does not—for the most part—have an accepted role for most types of substance use, unlike many older cultures, which may accept use, for example, as part of specific religious rituals. Thus, people who experiment with drugs in the United States usually do so in highly marginalized social settings, which can contribute to the development of substance use disorders (Wilcox 1998). Individuals who are curious about substance use, particularly young people, are therefore more likely to become involved in a drug culture that encourages excessive use and experimentation with other, often stronger, substances (for a review of intervention strategies to reduce discrimination related to substance use disorders, see Livingston et al. 2012).

When people who abuse substances are marginalized, they tend not to seek access to mainstream institutions that typically provide sociocultural support (Myers et al. 2009). This can result in even stronger bonding with the drug culture. A marginalized person’s behavior is seen as abnormal even if he or she attempts to act differently, thus further reducing the chances of any attempt to change behavior (Cohen 1992). The drug culture enables its members to view substance use disorders as normal or even as status symbols. The disorder becomes a source of pride, and people may celebrate their drug-related identity with other members of the culture (Pearson and Bourgois 1995White 1996). Social stigma also aids in the formation of oppositional values and beliefs that can promote unity among members of the drug culture.

When people with substance use disorders experience discrimination, they are likely to delay entering treatment and can have less positive treatment outcomes (Fortney et al. 2004Link et al. 1997Semple et al. 2005). Discrimination can also increase denial and step up the individual’s attempts to hide substance use (Mateu-Gelabert et al. 2005). The immorality that mainstream society attaches to substance use and abuse can unintentionally serve to strengthen individuals’ ties with the drug culture and decrease the likelihood that they will seek treatment.

The relationship between the drug and mainstream cultures is not unidirectional. Since the beginning of a definable drug culture, that culture has had an effect on mainstream cultural institutions, particularly through music, art, and literature. These connections can add significantly to the attraction a drug culture holds for some individuals (especially the young and those who pride themselves on being nonconformists) and create a greater risk for substance use escalating to abuse and relapse.

Understanding Why People Are Attracted to Drug Cultures

To understand what an individual gains from participating in a drug culture, it is important first to examine some of the factors involved in substance use and the development of substance use disorders. Despite having differing theories about the root causes of substance use disorders, most researchers would agree that substance abuse is, to some extent, a learned behavior. Beginning with Becker’s (1953) seminal work, research has shown that many commonly abused substances are not automatically experienced as pleasurable by people who use them for the first time (Fekjaer 1994). For instance, many people find the taste of alcoholic beverages disagreeable during their first experience with them, and they only learn to experience these effects as pleasurable over time. Expectations can also be important among people who use drugs; those who have greater expectancies of pleasure typically have a more intense and pleasurable experience. These expectancies may play a part in the development of substance use disorders (Fekjaer 1994Leventhal and Schmitz 2006).

Key Takeaways

  • Expectancies, or anticipated effects, develop based on the information we gather from parents, peers, and media.
  • These anticipated effects then play in part in how we experience drug use.
  • When we anticipate a drug to have a certain effect, it tends to influence how we feel when we use the drug (similar to a placebo effect).
  • Studies have even shown that people drinking a non-alcoholic placebo acted similarly to people who were consuming alcohol. (Bodnár, V., Nagy, K., Ciboly, Á. C., & Bárdos, G. (2018). The placebo effect and the alcohol. Journal of Mental Health and Psychosomatics, 19(1), 1–12.)


Additionally, drug-seeking and other behaviors associated with substance use have a reinforcing effect beyond that of the actual drugs. Activities such as rituals of use, which make up part of the drug culture, provide a focus for those who use drugs when the drugs themselves are unavailable and help them shift attention away from problems they might otherwise need to face (Lende 2005).

Drug cultures serve as an initiating force as well as a sustaining force for substance use and abuse (White 1996). As an initiating force, the culture provides a way for people new to drug use to learn what to expect and how to appreciate the experience of getting high. As White (1996) notes, the drug culture teaches the new user “how to recognize and enjoy drug effects” (p. 46). There are also practical matters involved in using substances (e.g., how much to take, how to ingest the substance for strongest effect) that people new to drug use may not know when they first begin to experiment with drugs. The skills needed to use some drugs can be quite complicated.

The drug culture has an appeal all its own that promotes initiation into drug use. Stephens (1991) uses examples from a number of ethnographic studies to show how people can be as taken by the excitement of the drug culture as they are by the drug itself. Media portrayals, along with singer or music group autobiographies, that glamorize the drug lifestyle may increase its lure (Manning 2007Oksanen 2012). In buying (and perhaps selling) drugs, individuals can find excitement that is missing in their lives. They can likewise find a sense of purpose they otherwise lack in the daily need to seek out and acquire drugs. In successfully navigating the difficulties of living as a person who uses drugs, they can gain approval from peers who use drugs and a feeling that they are successful at something.

Marginalized adolescents and young adults find drug cultures particularly appealing. Many individual, family, and social risk factors associated with adolescent substance abuse are also risk factors for youth involvement with a drug culture. Individual factors—such as feelings of alienation from society and a strong rejection of authority—can cause youth to look outside the traditional cultural institutions available to them (family, church, school, etc.) and instead seek acceptance in a subculture, such as a drug culture (Hebdige 1991Moshier et al. 2012). Individual traits like sensation-seeking and poor impulse control, which can interfere with functioning in mainstream society, are often tolerated or can be freely expressed in a drug culture. Family involvement with drugs is a significant risk factor due to additional exposure to the drug lifestyle, as well as early learning of the values and behaviors (e.g., lying to cover for parents’ illicit activities) associated with it (Haight et al. 2005). Social risk factors (e.g., rejection by peers, poverty, failure in school) can also increase young people’s alienation from traditional cultural institutions. The need for social acceptance is a major reason many young people begin to use drugs, as social acceptance can be found with less effort within the drug culture.

In addition to helping initiate drug use, drug cultures serve as sustaining forces. They support continued use and reinforce denial that a problem with alcohol or drugs exists. The importance of the drug culture to the person using drugs often increases with time as the person’s association with it deepens (Moshier et al. 2012). White (1996) notes that as a person progresses from experimentation to abuse and/or dependence, he or she develops a more intense need to “seek for supports to sustain the drug relationship” (p. 9). In addition to gaining social sanction for their substance use, participants in the drug culture learn many skills that can help them avoid the pitfalls of the substance-abusing lifestyle and thus continue their use. They learn how to avoid arrest, how to get money to support their habit, and how to find a new supplier when necessary.

The more an individual’s needs are met within a drug culture, the harder it will be to leave that culture behind. White (1996) gives an example of a person who was initially attracted in youth to a drug culture because of a desire for social acceptance and then grew up within that culture. Through involvement in the drug culture, he was able to gain a measure of self-esteem, change his family dynamic, explore his sexuality, develop lasting friendships, and find a career path (albeit a criminal one). For this individual, who had so much of his life invested in the drug culture, it was as difficult to conceive of leaving that culture as it was to conceive of stopping his substance use.

Finding Alternatives to Drug Cultures

A client can meet the psychosocial needs previously satisfied by the drug culture in a number of ways. Strengthening cultural identity can be a positive action for the client; in some cases, the client’s family or cultural peers can serve as a replacement for involvement in the drug culture. This option is particularly helpful when the client’s connection to a drug culture is relatively weak and his or her traditional culture is relatively strong. However, when this option is unavailable or insufficient, clinicians must focus on replacing the client’s ties with the drug culture (or the culture of addiction) with new ties to a culture of recovery.

To help clients break ties with drug cultures, programs need to challenge clients’ continued involvement with elements of those cultures (e.g., style of dress, music, language, or communication patterns). This can occur through two basic processes: replacing the element with something new that is positively associated with a culture of recovery (e.g., replacing a marijuana leaf keychain with an NA keychain), and reframing something so that it is no longer associated with drug use or the drug culture (e.g., listening to music that was associated with the drug culture at a sober dance with others in recovery; White 1996). The process will depend on the nature of the cultural element.

Developing a Culture of Recovery

Just as people who are actively using or abusing substances bond over that common experience to create a drug culture that supports their continued substance use, people in recovery can participate in activities with others who are having similar experiences to build a culture of recovery. There is no single drug culture; likewise, there is no single culture of recovery. However, large international mutual-help organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) do represent the culture of recovery for many individuals. Even within such organizations, though, there is some cultural diversity; regional differences exist, for example, in meeting-related rituals or attitudes toward certain issues (e.g., use of prescribed psychotropic medication, approaches to spirituality).


Treatment programs need to have a plan for creating a culture of recovery.


Programs that do not have a plan for creating a culture of recovery among clients risk their clients returning to the drug culture or holding on to elements of that culture because it meets their basic and social needs. In the worst-case scenario, clients will recreate a drug culture among themselves within the program. In the best case, staff members will have a plan for creating a culture of recovery within their treatment population.

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