The Addictive Personality

Is there such thing as an addictive personality or is it just a myth?

Fact Or Fiction?

Is there any truth in the suggestion that some of us are pre-wired to become addicted to something than others? I've always told people when discussing my issues with drugs and alcohol that I suffer from an addictive personality. Once I start something I find it more difficult than most to put it back down again. That they may be able to have a drink socially and stop when their body tells them enough is enough but for me it’s just not possible, I'm pre-wired to want more and more and then more!

Thanks to article written by Maia Szalavitz

Fundamentally, the idea of a general addictive personality is a myth. Research finds no universal character traits that are common to all addicted people. Only half have more than one addiction (not including cigarettes)—and many can control their engagement with some addictive substances or activities, but not others. Some are shy; some are bold. Some are fundamentally kind and caring; some are cruel. Some tend toward honesty; others not so much. The whole range of human character can be found among people with addictions, despite the cruel stereotypes that are typically presented. Only 18% of addicts, for example, have a personality disorder characterized by lying, stealing, lack of conscience, and manipulative antisocial behaviour. This is more than four times the rate seen in typical people, but it still means that 82% of us don’t fit that particular caricature of addiction.

The Genetics Of An Addictive Personality

Additionally, individuals born to parents who have suffered anxiety, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, or bipolar disorder can be predisposed to having an addictive personality.

Addiction & Childhood

Perhaps something in childhood could have been noticed and dealt with medically from a young age? So let's have a look if there's any truth to it, or at least if the internet can answer any of it for me. Thinking about it now it sounds a bit silly really, a bit of a cop out, a poor excuse for an excuse!

Although people with addictions or potential addicts cannot be identified by a specific collection of personality traits, however, it is often possible to tell quite early on which children are at high risk. Children who ultimately develop addictions tend to be outliers in a number of measurable ways. Yes, some stand out because they are antisocial and callous—but others stand out because they are overly moralistic and sensitive. While those who are the most impulsive and eager to try new things are at highest risk, the odds of addiction are also elevated in those who are compulsive and fear novelty. 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.

Whether these extreme traits lead to addictions, other compulsive behaviours, developmental differences, mental illnesses, or some mixture depends not just on genetics but also on the environment, people’s own reactions to it, and those of others to them. Addictions and other neurodevelopmental disorders rely not just on our actual experience but on how we interpret it and how our parents and friends respond to and label the way we behave. They develop in brains designed to change with experience—and that leaves us vulnerable to learning things that create damaging patterns, not just useful habits.

The impact of all these factors together can be seen most clearly in studies that follow participants from infancy into adulthood (which are rare because they take so long to conduct and are thus very expensive). In these types of data, some strong patterns emerge. One of the earliest and best-known longitudinal studies related to drug use followed 101 children—mainly middle class, two-thirds white—raised in Berkeley in the 1970s.

Conducted by psychologists Jonathan Shedler and Jack Block, then at the University of California, the research was published in 1990 and its main finding generated much controversy. The authors discovered that the most mentally and psychologically healthy teens were not those who abstained entirely from alcohol and other drugs, but rather the kids who experimented with weed and drinking, but didn’t overdo it. In this study, occasional teen drinking and marijuana use was normal adolescent behaviour. However, while it was common, it was typically not problematic.

Unsurprisingly the teens who became frequent users and drinkers had the problems you might expect, like depression, anxiety, and delinquent behaviour. Then again, many of the same psychiatric problems were also seen in the adolescents who rejected the idea of drinking and drugs entirely. That’s probably because, in order to avoid any experimentation as a kid growing up around the Berkeley campus in the ’70s (when nearly two thirds of high school seniors nationally reported at least trying marijuana), you’d have to be either a loner with few friends or a person who was unusually fearful and/or resistant to peer pressure. Not using drugs may well have been a wise choice for these youth— but good decisions aren’t always made for healthy reasons.

And indeed, that’s exactly what the study found. The youth who abstained did not tend to do so because they rationally recognized the risks. Instead, they were overly anxious, uptight, and lacking in social skills; some may not have had to say no because they didn’t even get the chance to say yes. Similar data have been published on teen drinking as well. Moderate drinkers—not non-drinkers—are the most well-adjusted, at least in countries where drinking is a social norm. The healthiest patterns are found in the middle of the curve, not at the extremes.

To understand how having these outlying traits increases risk for addiction, we have to look at how they affect development. Critically, in Shedler and Block’s data, the traits that marked both abstainers and heavy users could be seen long before drug use began. After all, the authors had started following these children in preschool. Once they knew how the participants behaved in adolescence, they could look back and see what early traits were linked to particular problems.

Longitudinal studies looking at addiction risk have found three major pathways to it that involve temperamental traits, all of which can be seen in nascent form in young children.

The Difference Between Male & Female Addicts

The first, which is more common in males, involves impulsivity, boldness, and a desire for new experience; it can lead to addiction because it makes it hard for people to control their own behaviour. The second, which tends to be seen more in women, involves being sad, inhibited, and/or anxious. While these negative emotions can also deter experimentation, when they do not do so, people may find themselves on a “self-medicating” path to addiction, where drugs are used to cope with painful feelings.

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