We often say that someone has an addictive personality. They may go from one obsessive interest to another or they might get a substance use issue under control only to overindulge in food or exercise compulsively. It might make intuitive sense that this person always goes to extremes, whether they’re drinking or painting landscapes. You may shrug and say, “He just has an addictive personality,” but is there really any such thing as an addictive personality? While research has failed to identify a distinct addictive personality type, there are some factors that might give the impression that someone has an addictive personality.
Research shows that about half of your addiction risk is determined by genetic factors. These genetic influences may take a variety of forms. For example, your genes could indirectly increase your addiction risk by making you more vulnerable to a mental health issue that increases your risk of addiction such as bipolar disorder.
Genes can also increase your addiction risk directly by affecting how you physiologically respond to drugs and alcohol. For example, researchers have identified a specific form of a dopamine receptor gene that is more common among people who are addicted to alcohol, cocaine, and opioids. It appears that people with this gene variant enjoy these substances more than other people and are therefore likely to use them more heavily. Since this particular gene affects your response to several different substances, it may give the possessor the appearance of having an addictive personality.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, more than half of adults and more than 60 percent of adolescents with a substance use disorder also have a co-occurring mental health issue. Common issues include major depression, anxiety disorders, ADHD, PTSD, OCD, personality disorders, and others. People often use drugs and alcohol to cope with the symptoms of these disorders and they may or may not be aware that they’re doing it. Sometimes people get sober without treating the underlying cause of their substance use and as a result, they may find some substitute coping mechanisms to soothe their symptoms. That new coping mechanism may be food, sex, exercise, shopping, gambling, or other things. Sometimes people go from one thing to another, giving the impression they have an addictive personality when really they have an untreated mental health issue.
Of the many mental health issues that increase your risk of addiction, obsessiveness, particularly obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD, looks the most like an addictive personality. For example, one might see that someone with OCD compulsively washes his hands and compulsively drinks alcohol and draw a direct connection. In reality, the link between addiction and OCD is more complicated. People with OCD typically feel intense anxiety around one particular thing, germs for example, and their compulsive behavior can temporarily relieve that anxiety. It’s likely the anxiety that causes both the compulsive behaviors and substance use. They are related but not quite the same. Either way, the overlap between OCD and addiction is huge. At least two studies have found that the lifetime risk of developing a substance use disorder if you have OCD is about 27 percent, compared to about 8 percent for the general population.
When it comes to personality research, the big five is the standard model in psychology. The big five personality traits include openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Neuroticism is the disposition to experience more negative emotions, including anger, anxiety, self-consciousness, irritability, emotional instability, and depression. Neuroticism overlaps significantly with a number of mental health issues, which also increases the risk of developing substance use disorders.
Neuroticism is one of the most well-defined personality traits and it is also one of the most stable throughout the lifespan. Someone who scores high on neuroticism is more likely to have substance use issues. Recent studies even show that neuroticism correlates with a higher risk of addiction to the Internet and social media. However, it’s also worth noting that the big five personality traits are also highly independent. Someone with high neuroticism might be extraverted or introverted, for example, so two people with high neuroticism might share a personality trait but not a personality.
Conscientiousness is another big five personality trait that appears to be related to substance use disorders. Conscientiousness is a measure of traits such as industriousness, orderliness, impulse control, reliability, and conventionality. People who score high in conscientiousness are typically less vulnerable to substance use disorders for a number of reasons. Greater impulse control and greater adherence to social convention reduces initial exposure to drugs and alcohol. Drugs and alcohol also impair your ability to function and meet your responsibilities, which is extremely stressful for highly conscientious people. The meta-analysis of personality and internet addiction cited above found that high conscientiousness completely offset the risks of high neuroticism. As noted above, conscientiousness is only one personality trait, so while someone with high conscientiousness is not likely to have a substance use issue, there remain many possible combinations of other traits.
While there are common risk factors for addiction, there is no single addictive personality type. Everyone is different, which is why addiction treatment should be as individualized as possible. At Hired Power, we understand the importance of tailoring treatment to fit the client. We can help you organize a treatment plan that best suits your specific needs and provide support services to keep you on track. Call us today at 714-559-3919 to learn more about our services.