Do addictive personalities exist?
Addictions and addictive personalities. We’ve heard the hype, the discussions and maybe even conjured up the images of people with what we think are addictive personalities. Addictions are real, but addictive personalities – well that’s another thing. When we think of an “addictive personality,” often it’s someone who we believe is “destined” to end up addicted to a substance of some sort. And, of course, if you’re worried that you might be one of these people, you’re likely to start digging to find out what the traits are. Well, you might be surprised to find out that the entire concept is a combination of truth and fiction. Read on to learn more about this.
There is no such thing as a specific addictive personality. There, I’ve said it. Actually, it’s researchers that have said it – not just me. The fiction is the concept of a specific addictive personality. According to an article in Scientific American, “there is no one personality type that leads to addiction. Different traits can lead different people to become addicted to drugs or alcohol, depending on other factors.” There are, however, several traits that can be identified as leading to substance disorders in some people. The difference is that not all of these traits are found in every addict.
Some traits can be identified in particular people that run a higher risk of becoming addicted to some substances. People with these traits find it difficult to moderate their use of certain substances, which leads to a higher risk. These traits include:
* Being adventurous and risk-taking; being obsessive-compulsive; being related to others who’ve had an addiction; being incapable of self-regulating; and being cautious and disconnected. Let’s take a closer look at these.
The “Adrenaline junkie”
Being adventurous and prone to taking risks, as well as having poor or no impulse control when it comes to dangerous activities, can lead to experimenting with drugs. I’m pretty sure I fall into this category, but I work hard to control it. According to one study reported by Reuters, “people with high levels of dopamine in the brain may have a lower sensitivity to its effects, meaning that they need to have more intense experiences to feel the pleasure that this brain chemical causes. This, in turn, can be bound into the person’s experience using drugs and alcohol, which directly affect the dopamine system. In this way, the adventure-seeking, risk-taking personality can have a higher likelihood of experimenting with and, later, becoming addicted to these substances.” (https://www.reuters.com/article/us-dopamine-idUSTRE6105RE20100201. But can being apathetic lead to substance abuse? According to a study in Scientific American, yes and this type of person is likely to be a man (https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-addictive-personality-isn-t-what-you-think-it-is/).
The obsessive-compulsive person
Just because a person lacks impulse control, it doesn’t mean they are unable to resist their impulses completely. Actually, people who manage their impulses too rigidly could also abuse substances as a result of obsessive-compulsive behavior (https://americanaddictioncenters.org/ocd-and-addiction). People have been known to feel compelled to try a substance based on an old habit instead of impulsively wanting to try something new. Consequently, individuals with this type of behavior pattern could also develop addictions.
The relative with an addiction
People who have relatives who abuse substances often worry if they are at risk, too. Genes do have at least some effect on a person’s risk of becoming addicted. According to a study from the journal Psychiatry, “having a close family member who is struggling with an addiction can make it more likely that an individual will develop an addiction as well.” (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1476179306001285). Despite this, a person’s genetic makeup is no guarantee that he or she will become addicted. There are too many other factors at work that make individuals begin abusing substances.
The person who is unable to self-regulate
What ties traits together is the fact that the individual in question is unable to control behaviors and thoughts, while others succeed in moderating the use of substances. Studies have shown that an individual who is unable to control behavior relating to receiving an award is very likely to develop an addiction.
The cautious, disconnected person
Some people with these traits are more likely to turn to substances to manage feelings of loneliness and depression to lessen those feelings. That, in turn, can lead to dependence on the substance just to feel good in general. And that can result in tolerance and addiction. “Cautious people who are uncomfortable with social relationships and who may suffer from depression and anxiety can also develop addictions. These people are often women,” according to the previously mentioned article in Scientific American.
There are three combinations of traits that “can” lead to addiction, Maia Szalavitz writes in her excellent book “Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding Addiction.” In the first combination, impulsivity, boldness and a desire for new experiences – more common in males – can lead to addiction because it makes it hard for people to control their own behavior. In the second, being sad, inhibited, and/or anxious – traits that are more common in women – can lead people to “self-medicate” with drugs to cope with painful feelings.
ContradictionsPeople who are bold and adventurous and people who are sad and cautious seem like complete opposites. The third combines the first two types of traits and involves individuals who both fear and desire novelty, which leads to behavioral swings that range from “being impulsive and rash to being compulsive, fear-driven and stuck in rigid patterns. This is where some of the contradictions that have long confounded the study of addiction come into play—namely, some aspects seem precisely planned out, while others are obviously related to lack of restraint,” according to Szalavitz.
Not the typical stereotype
“Fewer than 19% of addicts display a personality disorder characterized by lying, stealing, lack of conscience and manipulative antisocial behavior, which means that the vast majority of people who are addicted don’t fit the stereotype of addicts,” according to Szalavitz. No matter which substance a person abuses or which combinations of traits he/she exhibits, addiction is a severe health issue that costs society in many, many ways. Although I’ve focused on substance abuse, we can become addicted to a variety of things, such as gambling, food, porn and other destructive behaviors. And it affects more people than we realize! Szalavitz posits that “difficulties with self-regulation lay the groundwork for learning addiction and for creating a condition that is hard to understand.” Make no mistake, this can happen to any of us (see my earlier post: “This is me on opioids.”). It’s a warning we should all heed.