The last decade has seen an increase in reported cases of substance abuse. Behavioral addictions also represent a significant public health concern. The need to understand an addictive personality disorder has consequently increased, with seemingly contradicting reports from studies exploring the correlation between addiction and personality traits.
In one such study, 216 addicted people and 78 control individuals were asked to complete questionnaires on personality and social demographics. There were personality distinctions across the different types of addiction.
The study found that impulsivity and neurosis were high throughout all the addiction types as compared to the controls.
Those with substance abuse disorders and those with compulsive sexual behavior were found to have similar traits, and those with gambling disorders had profiles similar to the control group.
These findings suggest that addictions may have roots in the processes that form individual personalities.
To answer the question, “what is an addictive personality,” it is important to go in-depth into addiction. What does personality, the characteristics that form an individual’s distinctive character, have to do with addiction?
What is Addiction?
Addiction is a brain disorder, a compulsive, chronic, physiological, or psychological need for a habit-forming substance, behavior, or activity having harmful physical, psychological, or social effects and typically causing well-defined symptoms upon withdrawal or abstinence.
Addictions are multi-step conditions that require exposure to an addictive agent.
According to the American Psychiatric Association and World Health Organization, at least 3 of the following criteria must be met by an addiction to qualify as, well, an addiction:
- Tolerance: If quantities have to be increased over time to achieve the same effect.
- Withdrawal: Experiencing either physical or emotional withdrawal when not using a substance or abstaining from an activity.
- Control limitation: Using or doing more than you would want to at a particular time.
- Negative consequences: Continued use even after negative consequences to moods, esteem, work, health, and relationships.
- Neglected or postponed activities: Putting off social and recreational events as a result of use.
- Significant time or energy spent: A lot of time or energy spent on obtaining, using, concealing, planning, and/ or recovering from use.
- Desire to cut down: Desire to reduce, control, or stop using, or unsuccessful attempts.
How To Tell If You Have an Addiction
Any of the above is an indicator of some form of addiction. To summarize them into the most obvious:
- You will use, drink, or do more than you would like to.
- Your use continues in spite of all the negative effects the activity is having in your life and relationships.
Causes of Addiction
- Family history: Studies have shown that a significant percentage (50-60%) of addiction is due to genetic factors. One such study on twin pairs led to a similar conclusion after 861 identical pairs showed high resemblance across several definitions of alcoholism. The remainder is attributed to environmental factors.
- Poor coping skills: significant stress levels will lead to seeking out an escape, which may be found in drugs and other substances.
- Underlying mental health problems: 15-30% of individuals with addictions also demonstrate mental health issues. This is what is called a dual diagnosis or co-occurring disorder.
With addiction well understood, it easier to deliberate what defines an addictive personality.
What is an Addictive Personality?
An addictive personality is a set of personality traits that make an individual more prone to developing an addiction.
While more a hypothesis than a grounded scientific concept, it alludes to there being observable traits in people that coincide with addiction. To some, it is an idea that some people are fated to develop addictions.
The problem with the phrase is that there is no universally agreed-upon definition.
It is worth noting that no medical examination can be used to determine if you are more susceptible to addiction than the next person, but some traits are more commonly shared among people with addictions.
With that said, no personality type is predisposed to addiction. Factors that are environmental, physiological, and biological may also play a part in the development of an addiction.
Assumptions and Misconceptions about Addictive Personality
- People who have developed addictions have done so because of this addictive personality, which is characterized by difficulty in delaying gratification, non-conformity, and anti-social tendencies.
- People with addictive personalities have predictable thought processes and behavior patterns.
- People with addictive personalities can be expected to turn to other drugs or behaviors during treatment or after treatment as a result of their personality.
These observations by Maryann Amodeo highlight the potentially negative impacts like stigmatization and generalizing those affected by various addictions while they undergo challenges unique to each one of them.
As such, there are calls to find a more suitable term to replace addictive personality among the substance abuse treatment circles.
At face value, you would assume that addictive personality means that being born with a certain personality meant you were doomed to addiction from the first sip of alcohol, first bite, or first smoke.
It is more complicated than just underlying factors that cause overindulging.
Is an Addictive Personality Disorder a Diagnosis?
If the question is “what is addictive personality?” the answer is not a diagnosis. Personalities are too complex. Addictive personality is, as a result, multi-faceted in that it does not quite exist as an independent entity.
Some people who have an addiction to nicotine are more likely to develop a second addiction to something else like alcohol. This could be due to either genetics or the environment.
Similarly, a rush-seeking individual who is restless or hyperactive may eventually develop traits associated with an addictive personality. This, combined with factors that cause addiction such as poor coping skills or poor impulse control can lead to the onset of addiction.
What this shows is while there is no determined personality more susceptible than others, there are combinations of factors that make an individual more likely to be an addict.
Factors Influencing Addictive Personality
In the scientific community, there is a consensus that genetic factors play the largest part in determining susceptibility to addiction. Genes play different roles in different addiction types. However, the identification of the susceptible genes has been slow.
Studies have linked factors that lead to addictions like poor self-control, depression, and compulsive behavior to neurotransmitter abnormalities, which are essentially biological or genetic factors.
One study of twins and adoptions concluded that genetic factors are indeed responsible for 50-60% risk, at least in the case of alcoholism.
It also concluded that social factors only bear significance in the early adolescent years, significance that fades with the jump to adulthood.
Individuals with mental health problems have a higher risk of falling into addiction. Depression, anxiety, PTSD, anti-social tendencies e.t.c are such conditions. These individuals may portray behavior that may be an attempt to convey repressed or unrealized feelings.
These may include:
- Heightened stress
- Thrill-seeking behavior
- Come-what-may attitude
- Impulsivity, the tendency to act on a whim.
Taking a real-world example, children born into homes with substance or behavioral addictions are more likely to show addictive personalities.
Similarly, children born into problematic or stressful homes, those with cases of depression or OCD may be more susceptible to addiction because of their environment.
Studies show that exposure to such vices, including sexual abuse, coincides with addiction to drugs, or food in adulthood.
Traits of an Addictive Personality
Do I have an addictive personality? There are recognizable traits for people who are at a higher risk of falling into addiction.
- Impulsivity: snap decisions with no regard for consequences
- Existing mental health disorders: depression, anxiety, PTSD
- Thrill/ excitement-seeking: dangerous driving, promiscuity, dopamine-inducing activities
- Risk-taking: jumping off high places, walking on ledges.
- Disconnected/ anti-social: seclusion from family and society
- Lack of self-regulation: inability to control quantities, allocate fixed amounts of time.
- Easy relation to addicts
- Obsessive and compulsive
Additionally, some behaviors indicate the same. Keep a look-out for:
- Binge eating and comfort eating
- Coping using drugs like painkillers
- Too much phone/ internet use
- Impulse buying and excess shopping
- Becoming dare-devils
- Lying and manipulation to friends and family
- Blame-shifting and never taking responsibility
While not a scientific diagnosis, exhibiting any of the above traits and behaviors could indicate an underlying susceptibility to a substance or behavioral addiction.
Addictive Personality and Dual Diagnosis
The relationship between addiction susceptibility and mental health has already been established. Illnesses like anxiety and depression are some of the physiological factors influencing addictive personality.
It is therefore easy to find some sort of relationship between co-occurring disorders and addictive personality disorder. Studies show that about 15-30% of individuals dealing with addiction are also dealing with depression.
It works both ways: mental health problems can lead to addiction and addiction can cause issues like depression and anxiety. More often than not, drugs offer an escape for those battling mental health conditions, only to end up exacerbating the initial problem; a vicious cycle.
A Case For and Against Addictive Personality
Mary Amodeo’s observations echo a lot of other professionals in the on-going debate on whether addictive personality should be a thing or not. To some, it is a complete myth.
To others, it is a promising avenue leading to finding the relationship between people and their addictions, if any. There are valid points on both sides, merit in both arguments.
Research is yet to find that definite, indisputable, and universal trait that cuts across everyone battling one form of addiction or another. A large number of addicts possess completely different traits.
Even with the consensus on genetic factors, the causality is still not absolute. Environmental factors still have a significant part to play. Traits singled out are not all present in every single addict.
On the other hand, however, some traits indicate a higher probability of falling into addiction. This is also widely agreed upon.
Addictions like alcoholism have been scientifically tied to certain genomes. Risk-takers and those with little impulse control, partakers in dangerous activity, and experiences are more likely to use and get addicted to drugs and those ‘high-inducing’ activities.
The extremities of personalities are tied to an elevated risk of becoming addicts at some point. Geniuses and high IQ individuals have been known to use drugs more than average IQ individuals.
Whether for or against, some things can be agreed on: different traits can be linked to different addictive behavior.
Overcoming Addictive Personality
How do you help a person with an addictive personality?
Since genes are pretty much locked in, behavior and environment are the only controllable factors. There are various therapy programs that can help with the management of these traits like impulsivity and self-regulation.
It is always better to cope with a problem before the onset, and avoiding the following (behaviors) while following the suggestions is a great start.
- Alcohol: A pint is not bad, right? Well, wrong. Not if you have certain traits and tendencies. A staple in most social settings, alcohol may be difficult to avoid. It is understandably easier said than done, but a change to the normal social setting may do the trick. Of course, it will come down to you being able to say no.
- Internet: Choose a day to unplug. Leave your phone behind. Go for walks, runs, swims, or engage in a sport. The tweets will still be there when you get back.
- Gambling: The thrill of winning it big, huh? Gambling can turn very destructive without self-regulation. It is best to avoid it completely and instead, spend the money on worthwhile investments
- Smoking: Do not smoke. It is not healthy. If you have already started, it would be best to get help as soon as possible and make your intentions known to everyone around you.
- Relaxation weed: Society has made it seems okay to smoke marijuana. While others may be able to handle it without getting addicted, the same does not apply to everyone. Try other relaxation methods like music, yoga, or swimming.
- Shopping: Not only is compulsive shopping a waste of money but an indicator of an underlying psychological issue. If it is self-esteem, work on getting that back up through self-love and acceptance instead.
- Binge eating: It is a well-known ‘relaxation method’. Stressed? Eat. Overwhelmed? Eat. It may seem harmless on the surface, but you are slowly conditioning your brain and body. Soon enough, that harmless tradition may lead to obesity and an addiction to food. It is better to take a walk, meditate, or take a siesta.
- Seeing quitting as difficult: With this mentality, battling any condition will always result in failure. Even with an addictive personality, millions of people have come out the other end in complete control over their minds, bodies, and lives.
- Fear of counseling and therapy: Do not wait until it is too late to get help. You know the causes and traits. Rock-bottom does not have a soft landing.
It would be easy to point a finger towards those fighting substance abuse, saying theirs is an addiction and yours is not, although that is not always the case.