“It is extremes of personality and temperament—some of which are associated with talents, not deficits—that elevates risk. Giftedness and high IQ, for instance, are linked with higher rates of illegal drug use than having average intelligence.” — Maia Szalavitz, author of Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary Way of Understanding Addiction
In the past, psychiatrists thought that those prone to substance use disorder and other forms of addictive behavior shared a certain “addictive personality.” Over the years, researchers have failed to prove this to be true. However, research has shown there are certain common personality characteristics of addiction, or perhaps addictive personality traits, that appear in those who are at high risk of developing a substance use disorder or behavioral addiction, such as gambling or sex addiction.
It tends to be extremes in temperament or personality that increase the odds of developing an addiction. For example, these extremes are found in both those who tend to be anxious and neurotic — perhaps with a tendency toward obsessive behaviors — as well as those who may not struggle with anxiety or other mental health issues but rather are very adventurous and seek excitement. Both of these extremes are examples of having trouble with self-regulation. Read on below for more details about seven of the common personality characteristics of addiction.
1. Problems With Self-Regulation
Self-regulation means making choices consistent with your values that ensure your well-being. It also means being able to manage your emotions so that you can be proactive and maintain a healthy quality of life. Often people who struggle with addiction have difficulty with self-regulation. This may show up as a difficulty in resisting impulsive behavior or an inability to manage feelings of anxiety.
One of the noted characteristics of an addictive personality had been impulsivity. And while the term “addictive personality” is no longer used, this trait or characteristic remains common among many who have addictive disorders. Impulsivity means engaging in unplanned behavior quickly with little forethought about possible consequences or outcomes. While a certain amount of impulsivity actually may be useful when it comes to quick decision-making, higher levels may lead to poor choices with negative consequences. Research has shown a correlation between impulsivity and substance use. A person who struggles with impulse control has difficulty managing gratification. They would rather choose a smaller reward that will occur more quickly rather than wait for a longer period for a larger reward. For example, rather than wait until the end of the week to receive $100, they would rather receive $25 immediately.
When people wonder about what an addictive personality is, the image of someone who takes a lot of risks often comes to mind. A tendency to engage in risky or thrill-seeking behavior has also been noted as a characteristic common in those struggling with addiction. This type of behavior occurs as a result of a need for a variety of novel and stimulating experiences. There also seems to be a close relationship between impulsive behavior and a high level of risk-taking. Plus, alcohol and other drugs lower a person’s inhibition, which may lead them to engage in dangerous behaviors they wouldn’t usually attempt. For example, they may engage in risky sexual encounters or drive while intoxicated.
While some individuals may throw caution to the wind and choose risky activities with little thought about consequences, others are overly cautious and prone to anxiety and worry. This high level of anxiety may make social interactions difficult and uncomfortable. Researchers have found that a struggle with anxiety is often among common personality characteristics of addiction. Sometimes people start using drugs as an attempt to self-manage or self-treat their anxiety, and then it becomes a full-blown addiction. Ironically, drug use can often increase anxiety, particularly when someone is experiencing withdrawal symptoms and craving the drug.
Many people with substance use disorder often struggle with other mental health disorders besides anxiety, including depression. Like those who try to self-treat anxiety, they may try to manage their depression by using drugs as an attempt to escape the discomfort and heaviness of depression. When someone is struggling with more than one disease at a time, it is called comorbidity or dual diagnosis.
Other mental health comorbidities are also often common in those struggling with addiction, including bipolar disorder, PTSD, and schizophrenia. In addition, sometimes certain drugs can actually cause changes to the brain that can cause a person to be more likely to develop a mental illness.
Obsessive behavior or thinking means being unable to stop doing an action or thinking a thought, even when the obsession is negatively affecting the person’s life. For example, someone may feel like they need to wash their hands repeatedly or check over and over to make sure the doors are locked. It turns out that similar parts of the brain are activated in both obsessive-compulsive disorder and addiction.
Someone struggling with addiction may constantly think about when they are going to have their next opportunity to get high or how they are going to get drugs. So as with other mental health disorders, a desire to find a way to manage obsessiveness may influence a person to start taking drugs, but it may also become worse once they are addicted as they obsess over getting the drugs to maintain their addiction and ease cravings.
7. A Tendency to Have Multiple Addictions
Often, someone struggling with a substance use disorder is also struggling with an addiction to one or more other substances, or they may also have a behavioral addiction. Research shows that this tendency to develop more than one addiction may be a combination of a genetic predisposition to addiction plus the social environment of the individual. For example, if someone has an addiction to alcohol, they may also have an addiction to smoking as these addictions often go hand-in-hand in part because of the social setting.
Do You Have Any Common Personality Characteristics of Addiction?
There is no such thing as an addictive personality, but there are certain characteristics that can increase the likelihood of addiction. If you or someone you love is struggling with some of the common personality characteristics of addiction, there is help available.
Hopefully, you can find support in the form of caring friends or family. However, to effectively treat a debilitating mental health issue or conquer an addiction, it is usually important to seek professional help. This may mean reaching out to a mental health therapist or possibly an addiction counselor or addiction treatment center if you are already struggling with a substance use disorder or another form of addictive behavior.
It is possible to learn to manage anxiety and impulsive behaviors as well as to find treatment for depression and other mental health issues. Treatment may include talk therapy, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, as well as medication.