It’s hard to understand why one person that uses drugs gets addicted and another person that uses them doesn’t. Scientists have looked for all sorts of explanations, ranging from genetic makeup to family history. Another part of their research focuses on addictive personality traits.
You can hear it now – someone talks about an acquaintance’s drug use and another person replies: “Well, he always had an addictive personality.” While you may shake your head and agree (or not), what does addictive personality mean, and is there really an “addictive personality” type?
Find out what researchers know about addictive personalities and personality traits that may increase the risk of addiction.
Risk factor: Impulsivity, Boldness, and Desire for New Experience
A study published in the journal Addictive Behaviors found that people who struggled with addiction had two common personality traits: impulsivity and neuroticism.1 Men appear to especially struggle with impulsivity.1 Being impulsive means that a person acts quickly, often without thinking about the long-term effects. Being impulsive can make it hard for a person to control their own behavior, which can make them more likely to struggle with addiction.2
Risk factors: Sad, Inhibited, and Anxious
If men who are bold and impulsive struggle with addiction, the female character traits doctors associate with addiction are seemingly opposite. Women who report feeling sad, inhibited, or anxious are more likely to struggle with addiction, according to Scientific American.2 These are negative emotions that may lead women to “self-medicate,” or abuse substances as a way to try to escape or cope with their negative feelings. Unfortunately, when a person stops using these drugs, the emotions come back, and they’re often even stronger than before.
While impulsivity and sadness or anxiousness may seem opposite, they each have a common trait: problems with self-regulation.2 Problems regulating emotions can, at times, result in abusing drugs or alcohol as a means to escape.
About half of all people who experience a mental illness will struggle with addiction at some point in their lives, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.3
Depression is a serious mental illness that causes a person to experience profound feelings of sadness and hopelessness. Many people turn to drugs or alcohol as a means to try and cope with their feelings of depression. Sometimes, addiction can lead to depression as feelings of powerlessness against the addiction develop.3
Anxiety occurs when a person has a heightened sense of fear or worry that is at a much higher level than most people would feel in the same situation. Those with anxiety may often try to self-medicate their feelings. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, an estimated 43% of people who are in treatment for a substance use disorder for non-medical use of prescription pills have a diagnosis of depression and anxiety.3
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, those with schizophrenia experience higher rates of alcohol, tobacco, and drug use when compared with the general population.3
Schizophrenia is a serious mental illness that causes a person to lose touch with reality and may experience hallucinations and psychosis where they see, hear, feel, or smell things that aren’t there.
Borderline personality disorder is a medical condition that causes a person to experience problems connecting to people, particularly in their relationships with a significant other or partner. They experience frequent mood swings and have problems managing their emotions and often have significant mood swings that can result in impulsive and often risk-seeking behaviors, which include abusing drugs and alcohol.3
According to an article in Scientific American, an estimated 18% of people who struggle with addiction have a personality disorder that includes manipulative, anti-social behavior.2 This number is about four times higher than the rate of addiction in people who do not have antisocial personality traits.2
Doctors find those with antisocial personality disorder most commonly experience addiction, according to an article in the journal Nature.4 Some of the symptoms or characteristics a person with antisocial personality disorder may display include dishonesty, manipulative behavior, insensitivity, and sometimes criminal behavior.4 An estimated 9% of people with antisocial personality disorder experience an alcohol use disorder, which is more than twice as much as the general population.4
Mood swings can be a common symptom of some psychological disorders, such as bipolar disorder. They cause a person to swing from the very highs of personality to feeling extremely low. A person who has frequent mood swings may turn to drugs or alcohol as a means to feed these mood swings and keep the personality high going or as a way to self-medicate.
Continuing to abuse drugs or alcohol, even when you've had a negative outcome or health consequences
Inability to follow rules you set for yourself, such as limiting the number of drinks you take a day
Not being able to stop using a particular substance or substances
People who show compulsive behavior may also obsess over drugs or alcohol or have obsessive thoughts that they may try to escape through using these substances.
A research study published in the journal Addictive Behaviors found people who are addicted to the same substance usually have more addictive personality traits in common than people who struggle with addiction in general.1 The study found people addicted to alcohol were less likely to report addictive personality traits like being an extrovert, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. Those addicted to alcohol were also more likely to be impulsive and neurotic.2
Those who struggle with drug abuse often have lower conscientiousness levels than those who don’t, according to a study in the journal Addictive Behaviors.1 Conscientiousness means thinking about others and considering others in a person’s decisions. However, researchers haven’t been able to identify specific addictive personality groupings by drug of choice.1
When a person uses drugs or alcohol, the substances cause the brain to release chemicals that change the way they think and feel. This effect can create a pleasurable high or in others, a sense of numbness to their problems. Each of these sensations can basically “feed” a person’s need for more of a substance in an attempt to feel that way again.
Researchers have attempted to find out what parts of the brain affect addiction and basically keep a person addicted to drugs or alcohol coming back to their addiction. Some of the areas they’ve identified include the prefrontal cortex, a portion of the brain involved in planning, especially planning for the future2
Located within the prefrontal cortex is the orbitofrontal cortex, which is an area that helps a person decide what their choices will mean in their future.2 Doctors have found a direct link between the orbitofrontal cortex and the nucleus accumbens (NAC), which is the brain area associated with pleasure and reward.2
These portions and others in the brain all work together to guide decisions and sometimes engage in the behaviors that result in or maintain addiction, including relapsing or constantly seeking out a drug to reward the brain’s pleasure circuits.
Dopamine is a chemical in the body that has many effects on it – one of these effects that doctors associate with addiction is a pleasurable high.6 There are a lot of misconceptions about dopamine, and the answer is that it’s not quite as simple as the concept that the brain becomes addicted to the flood of neurotransmitters.
Doctors do know that using certain drugs does cause an increase in dopamine in the brain. Examples include using cocaine or heroin. When a person experiences a high that’s super strong, their brain remembers how that high felt. This effect can cause a person to experience a sense of longing and desire to achieve this high again.
However, it’s important to remember that dopamine isn’t the problem. Using drugs or alcohol in the first place was the trigger that set off the events that resulted in higher dopamine levels. While higher levels of dopamine may be motivating to you to return to drug or alcohol use, you have to address the underlying cause first. Plus, there are lots of other activities and pursuits that can increase dopamine in the body. Examples may include eating a food you enjoy or creating art.6
When you consider the ways that an addictive personality may play a role in addiction, it’s easier to understand the approaches that therapists and other addiction treatment professionals may take in helping a person who struggles with drug and alcohol use. An example is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). This therapy type is aimed at helping a person recognize their emotions and learn how to think about the long-term consequences such as “How will this affect me and my sobriety?” and “How will my family and supporters respond if I make this choice?”
A doctor may also use CBT as a means to help a person recognize when they are behaving impulsively. The therapy approach can also help a person identify when they are slipping back into behavior patterns, such as intense anxiety or feelings of sadness, that can lead them back to drugs and alcohol.
Another aspect of addiction treatment related to addictive personality is helping a person find their own motivations behind sobriety and refraining from drug and alcohol abuse. Often, those who struggle with depression lack motivation and energy, which are vital in sobriety.
Lastly, addiction treatment helps a person find safer and more researched approaches to treating mental illness. Instead of self-medicating with a particular substance, a person can take medications that are aimed at treating the condition without putting a person at risk for overdose and trouble with the law.
It’s important to know that an addictive personality trait is not the only factor that influences addiction. There are plenty of people out there who are impulsive that never even try drugs and alcohol, just as there are cautious people who also use drugs. According to an article in Scientific American,
But knowing about personality could help doctors, teachers, family members, and more identify who may be at risk for drug use and addiction.