Addictive Personality: Traits of People Who are at a High Risk of Addiction

Table of Contents

In an effort to understand addiction, researchers have explored common personality traits among individuals who struggle with addiction.1 In doing so, the phrase “addictive personality” became a popular way to characterize these individuals as having abnormal reactions to their experiences.2

However, an “addictive personality” is not an actual psychiatric diagnosis, and labeling someone with this phrase can have a detrimental impact. 3

While labeling someone as having an “addictive personality” is not an effective way to identify the mental and behavioral patterns that set them apart from others, it is essential to explore risk factors for developing an addiction to more effectively understand the causes of addiction.

Common risk factors include a relation to someone with an addiction, mental health diagnoses, impulsivity, social alienation, compulsivity, and challenges with self-regulation.

Fortunately, mental health professionals can help individuals at risk of developing an addiction learn healthy coping skills to reduce their risk. Evidence-based addiction treatment methods are also available for people who have developed an addiction.

What is an Addictive Personality?

Addiction is characterized by patterns of excessive use, issues with control, and challenging consequences related to the use of substances or other behaviors. The phrase “addictive personality” has been used to label individuals with addictions as having abnormal reactions to challenges in their environment and their internal experiences.2

Exploring common personality traits in different addiction populations has been a part of an attempt to understand what makes up an “addictive personality.” 1 The phrase suggests that there is a specific personality type characteristic of individuals who are more prone to experience some form of addiction in their lifetime.3

Studies have suggested that people with addictions may have distinct personalities that underlie the addictive behavior they engage in.1

However, it is important to note that an “addictive personality” is not a valid psychiatric diagnosis. Each personality is complex and unique, and there is not one specific personality type that makes someone more likely to have an addiction. However, the combination of several factors may make someone more likely to develop an addiction at some point in their lifetime. 3

Video: Addictive Personality Traits

The Myth Surrounding Addictive Personalities

While certain factors may make someone more likely to develop an addiction, the reality of having an “addictive personality” is a myth. 4 The personality traits inherent in those who are more likely to experience addiction are not necessarily predictive of addiction on their own.

There is no proper evidence to suggest that a specific personality trait, or a set of personality traits, indicates or predicts that the individual who possesses them will develop an addiction. 4

Additionally, there are no universal personality traits inherent in every person who suffers from an addiction.

One person with an addiction might be shy, while another might be highly extroverted. One might be kind and caring, while another might be rude and cruel. One might be honest and forthright in their endeavors, while another might lie and steal. 5

While there is no specific collection of personality traits inherent in all individuals with an addiction or potential addiction, certain factors indicate whether a child is at high risk of developing an addiction at some time in their life.

They tend to stand out from their peers in some way, whether because they are antisocial and insensitive or overly sensitive and moral. They are also often impulsive and engage in high-risk behavior. These individuals may also engage in compulsive behavior and possess a fear of change.

They may sometimes have particular talents, such as giftedness or a high IQ, which are also associated with higher addiction rates. 5

Whether the personality traits in these children lead to addiction, some other compulsive behavior, mental illnesses, or a mixture of these is not just dependent upon genetics. The development of addiction or other neurodevelopmental disorders also depends on the individual’s environment, reactions to their environment, and how their family and friends label and respond to their behaviors. These experiences and their interpretation can foster the creation of destructive patterns in addition to beneficial habits. 5

Multiple causes and risk factors can lead to the development of an addiction, and labeling someone as having an “addictive personality” can be detrimental to the individual experiencing addiction and is not a helpful tool in their recovery from the addiction. 6

Traits of People with High Risk of Addiction

Individuals who are at high risk of developing an addiction may have certain recognizable traits.

Those at increased risk of addiction are often:

Biologically Related to Someone with Addiction

Like many psychiatric disorders, an individual’s genetic makeup can play a significant role in whether they develop substance use disorder. In fact, genetics may account for 40% to 60% of addiction risk.7 Scientists have found this percentage of risk by studying twins and children born to parents with addictions and later adopted by families who did not suffer from addiction. 8

There is no single gene responsible for addiction. However, a combination of genes within a person’s DNA may amplify their risk of developing a drug or alcohol addiction.

These genes may cause a person’s brain to form in a way that predisposes them to addiction by giving them an atypical response to dopamine, an abnormally small amygdala, or unusual levels of serotonin. These genetic variations can influence the way a person responds to cravings, withdrawals, and stress. 9

Diagnosed with Other Mental Health Disorders

Certain mental health disorders can create a greater risk for developing an addiction.9

These include:

People who experience severe, moderate, or even mild mental health disorders may often use drugs as a way to self-medicate.

Unfortunately, some drugs may worsen mental health symptoms, both in the short term and long term. For example, cocaine use can exacerbate bipolar disorder symptoms and even contribute to its progression. 10

ntal illness, they experience changes in their brain activity, increasing their likelihood of developing an addiction. These changes can contribute to addiction by increasing the rewarding effects of drug use and reducing the awareness of a drug’s adverse effects.

When someone with a mental health disorder uses drugs, they may also experience relief from the disorder’s symptoms. For example, the changes in the brain of someone with ADHD are also associated with drug cravings. Individuals with co-occurring addiction and ADHD often report more significant cravings. 11

Impulsive and Risk-Taking

Personality traits such as impulsive behavior, a desire to seek sensation, and difficulty delaying gratification can contribute to an addiction.10

Scientific studies that explore addicts’ brains show that these individuals are more likely to make quick decisions without thinking about the long-term consequences of those decisions. 8

Additionally, taking risks such as driving fast, engaging in sexual flings, and doing drugs all create a dopamine rush in the brain.

Dopamine is a chemical in the brain that induces a feeling of pleasure. People with addictions often crave a surge in dopamine more than other individuals. 8

Socially Alienated

Individuals who experience social alienation may have a higher likelihood of developing an addiction. 11

Those who are disconnected from their fellows may feel depressed or anxious. As explored above, individuals with mental health issues are more likely to use drugs to mitigate their negative symptoms.10

A study published in The Journals of Gerontology examined substance use among adults based upon their social isolation and loneliness.

Participants were categorized into groups who characterized themselves as “connected and active,” “alone but not lonely,” and “alone and lonely.”

Individuals in the “alone but not lonely” group were more likely than those in the “connected and active” group to engage in alcohol use. While participants in the “alone and lonely” group were more likely than the other groups to use non-medical drugs. 12

Obsessive and Compulsive

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is characterized by unwarranted fears and anxiety due to unwanted thoughts. People with OCD often engage in repetitive, compulsive activities like hand washing, counting, or arranging objects.

People who experience obsessive-compulsive behavioral patterns are often more likely to develop a drug and alcohol addiction.

Young people diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) are especially vulnerable to developing a substance use disorder. An estimated 24% of those with OCD experience an alcohol disorder, and an estimated 18% experience and drug use disorder. 13

Unable to Self-Regulate

In psychology, Behavioral Self-Regulation is the ability to act in one’s own long-term best interest in a way that minimizes feelings of guilt, shame, and anxiety.14

For example, if a person hates waking up early but gets up every morning at 6 am to go to work in order to achieve their goal of purchasing a home, they are exercising self-regulation.

In this circumstance, their motivation to achieve their long-term goal overrides their short-term desire to sleep in.

An inability to self-regulate has been associated with the risk of developing an addiction. A study published in the journal, Psychopharmacology tested the difference in responses between active cocaine users and people without a history of drug use.

The study concluded that an impaired ability to self-regulate in substance abusers could contribute to risk-taking behaviors and poor decision-making. 15

Helping Others with High Risk of Addiction

Mental health professionals, including therapists, psychologists, and psychiatrists, can help an individual struggling with the risk factors for addiction. Addressing these issues early on and identifying and implementing healthy coping mechanisms can decrease the individual’s likelihood of developing an addiction to drugs and alcohol. Additionally, many treatment methods exist that can help those with an addiction to recover.

Sources

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  15. Mark Michaud (585) 273-4790 mark_michaud@urmc.rochester.edu. (2020, August 05). Study Sheds Light on Source of Drug Addicts Risk-Taking Behavior. Retrieved from https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/news/story/study-sheds-light-on-source-of-drug-addicts-risk-taking-behavior