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Is There Really Such a Thing as an Addictive Personality?

Addiction is a complex brain condition that can come in all shapes and sizes, affecting people from many different walks of life, regardless of their personality type. However, we have all inevitably heard someone refer to themselves as having an ‘addictive personality’. Maybe they love reality TV series and can never seem to stop watching, books never seem to leave their hands, or they simply get obsessed with things very, very quickly.

There is no such thing as an “addictive personality”. The term is a complete stereotype that attempts to pinpoint a single personality type, or a set of specific traits, that can predict when someone will have an addiction. But, the development of such a disorder is much more complicated. So, why do some people develop an addiction while others can dip in and out of whatever substance they are using?

Photo by Reza Mehrad on Unsplash

We spoke to Paul Spanjar, a leading substance abuse counsellor and CEO of the Providence Projects, he had the following to say about the phrase ‘addictive personality’.

“There are several known factors that increase an individual’s chances of developing an addiction, but personality type is not one of them. Our knowledge of these different influential factors has allowed for the development of a range of effective treatments that can help you or a loved one if you are struggling with an addiction”.

He added: “The individuals upbringing has an impact, if he/she grew up in a hostile environment, either as a result of abuse, neglect or parental drug use, they are far more likely to develop a problem later in life. However, there are other correlations that need to be considered, such as pre-existing mental health problems, bullying or stress, which can all contribute towards an increased risk of addiction”.

Addictive Personality – Where Did It Come From?

Around 90 years ago, society began to recognise that those with an alcohol use disorder had much more than a moral failing. They began to take a more medical approach to negative drinking habits to address the issues that were at hand and to help those spiralling who were abusing the substance. Soon followed was the development of Alcohol Anonymous and the Twelve Step movement, the first established substance abuse disorder treatment and the basis of many utilised treatment options today.

In an attempt to explain why certain individuals developed problems with alcohol while others did not, medical professionals at the time put it down to a flaw in one’s personality. It was a simple yet believable explanation based on the limited research available in the 1930s. Further down the line, these ideas developed into the concept of a ‘disease model’. This viewed substance abuse disorders as an incurable and lifelong disease of the mind where abstinence was the only way an individual could live a healthy future.

Years of research later and after many advances in the medical field, we are aware that addiction is not so linear. Some individuals who have unhealthy drinking or drug patterns can actually return to regular use and, while they may experience problematic use with one substance, they can use others in non-problematic ways. This contradicts the key theory for an addictive personality – a lack of control. Other traits that are often associated with a ‘addictive personality’ include:

While there is no solid evidence to support the theory that individuals with the above traits have a higher risk of developing an addiction, there are several traits that seem to be related to addiction. For example, both high achievers and risk takers are found to be more likely to develop an addiction. A common thread amongst all these traits is the difficulty with regulating emotions.

This helps explain why individuals who have suffered trauma, or who have been diagnosed with ADHD, have a higher risk of developing a substance abuse disorder. Both PTSD and ADHD increase activity in the area of the brain that is associated with emotional reactions, the limbic system,  whilst decreasing activity in the logical area of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, which helps regulate emotional responses. Instead of having an ‘addictive personality’, these individuals may simply be portraying similar traits of struggling with emotion regulation, therefore increasing their chances of developing an addiction.

Why Is This Self-Diagnosis Harmful?

Proclaiming yourself as having an addictive personality may seem pretty harmless, and some people may even believe it helpful in preventing an addiction. I mean, if we can identify a set of personality traits that have the highest risk, wouldn’t this make it easier to support individuals before the development of an addiction? But, diminishing the complicated issue of addiction into a single personality type can be harmful for a few reasons.

The image of someone with an ‘addictive personality’ is presumably negative. It suggests that individuals living with addiction are unreliable, selfish, lacking control, or weak. It’s a classic stereotype that reinforces the stigma surrounding substance abuse disorders, increasing the number of individuals who are not seeking treatment as they believe it’s simply who they are. The idea of an ‘addictive personality’ can lead people to believe that they are destined for addiction or can even cause individuals to believe that they aren’t at risk as they don’t have the ‘right personality’. In reality, anyone can experience an addiction.

What Are the Actual Risk Factors for Addiction?

It can be difficult to pinpoint why some individuals are more likely to develop addiction compared to others. However, after decades of research into the mental disorder, there are a range of identified factors that play a role. Your environment, genetics, medical history, or upbringing are all potential risk factors.

Biological factors

Addiction isn’t born from a lack of morals or due to having no control, it’s actually caused by chemical reactions that happen within the brain. Research has found that up to 50% of our risk of developing an addiction is based on genetics. This means if you have family members who have experienced addiction, you are more likely to experience it also.

Environmental factors

Researchers have repeatedly found that one of the strongest external factors that increase the risk of addiction is our early life experiences. Growing up in a stressful or traumatic environment greatly increases the risk of developing a substance abuse disorder. Trauma can cause changes within our brains and these changes have been linked to increased chances of developing substance abuse disorders, depression, or both.

The Bottom Line

Addiction is far too complicated to be brought on by one factor: our personality types. Instead, our lived experiences and genetic make ups are a lot more influential in increasing the risk for addiction. While we may associate some personality traits with addictive behaviours, it doesn’t mean that this has directly caused the addiction.

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