Say What? "Habituation"

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"Say What?" is a periodic series in which we define scientific terms and explain their importance.

Teens typically take more risks than people in other age groups. This can be a good thing. Teens’ brains are rapidly developing, and wanting to try new things can be healthy.

The wrong kind of risk-taking, though, such as using drugs or driving while distracted, can be harmful. Plus, the more often teens take risks, the greater the chance they won’t be able to recognize a risky situation later on. That can lead to trouble.

Getting used to it

This process is one form of “habituation.” You can become habituated to something in your environment when you experience it often or continuously.

For instance, when you enter a space where background music is playing, you notice the music at first, but if you stay there for a while, you probably won’t notice it anymore.

Habituation can also apply to thoughts and impulses. This is where risk comes into play. NIDA’s 2017 third-place Addiction Science Award winner, Kashfia Rahman, tested many components of risky behaviors in teens; she found that the more risky choices a teen makes, the less aware they become of the risks involved.

The power of peers

If we can understand the brain processes that make teens take reckless risks in the first place, we might be able to halt this dangerous progression.

Scientists have discovered that changes in the teen brain cause teens to focus on the approval of peers and being included in peer activities. For example, when researchers ask teens why they got involved with drugs, many of them say “to fit in.” Researchers are finding other reasons, too.

The bottom line is: The more risks you take, the more likely you are to take riskier risks. Slow down, evaluate your choices, and think carefully before you act.

Learn more: Is addiction a choice?

Find Help Near You

Use the SAMHSA Treatment Locator to find substance use or other mental health services in your area. If you are in an emergency situation, this toll-free, 24-hour hotline can help you get through this difficult time: call 1-800-273-TALK, or visit the Suicide Prevention Lifeline. We also have step by step guides on what to do to help yourself, a friend or a family member.

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