There is no single addictive personality that makes you more prone to developing a substance use disorder. Addiction is the result of a complex mix of factors including genes, childhood environment, trauma, and mental illness. These affect people with many different combinations of personality traits. However, there are two personality traits that seem to significantly affect your addiction risk.
There are a number of different personality models but most psychologists rely on the five-factor model. The five traits in this model include openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism or emotional stability–OCEAN. Of these, conscientiousness and emotional stability appear to be most relevant to addiction risk. Conscientiousness is the tendency to be goal-oriented, industrious, and responsible and helps protect against substance use issues. We’ve discussed conscientiousness and how to increase it in another post.
Emotional stability and neuroticism are two ends of the same spectrum. Neuroticism is the tendency to experience negative emotions such as anxiety, anger, self-consciousness, and irritability. People high in neuroticism tend to view normal situations as threatening and their emotional responses are often disproportionate to events. This tendency is often exacerbated by childhood abuse or neglect and is highly associated with mental health and substance use issues in adulthood.
Emotional stability, on the other hand, is the tendency to have more moderate emotional reactions. Emotionally stable people don’t necessarily have more positive emotions but they experience fewer negative emotions. As a personality trait, emotional stability changes slowly but it can be changed. Here’s how.
If you have high neuroticism, the first thing to do is talk to a therapist. As noted, high neuroticism correlates with mental health issues including depression, anxiety disorders, OCD, and borderline personality disorder, among others. These conditions are serious and require professional help. A therapist can help you understand your volatile emotional reactions and help you develop techniques and strategies for managing them.
One strategy many therapists use to help you manage challenging emotions is to identify the thoughts behind those emotions. It is typically our thoughts and beliefs that cause us emotional pain, not the things that actually happen to us. If you are high in neuroticism, you are likely to perceive events as more threatening than they really are. So, for example, if you make a mistake at work, your mind might immediately jump to the worst possible outcome–maybe getting fired, not finding another job, losing your house, and so on. It’s no wonder then, that you feel disproportionately stressed over minor mistakes. Learn to recognize these faulty assumptions and challenge them.
Probably the biggest mistake people make when trying to manage their emotions is that they confuse management and suppression. You can’t stifle your way to emotional health. The key is rather to accept your emotional reactions with the understanding that they are both normal and temporary. Think of emotions as a kind of mental weather; your mind may be storming now but it may be sunny in an hour. Emotions are just signals. A challenging emotion in itself won’t harm you. There are even studies that have found that people who are more accepting of their emotions enjoy a greater sense of wellbeing, fewer negative moods, and lower levels of depression.
One way to cultivate emotional acceptance is to practice mindfulness meditation. The essence of this exercise is to notice any emotions that arise and to watch them nonjudgmentally. You might notice any physical sensations associated with the emotion or any thoughts that arise with it. In this way, you gradually understand your own mental processes better and feel less threatened by strong emotions.
Exercise is another excellent way to moderate your emotional reactivity. A lot of things happen in your body and brain when you exercise. You get more serotonin, endorphins, and brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF, which grows neurons. You also stimulate blood flow to the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for emotional regulation. Studies show that regular exercise changes the structure of your brain, especially a group of structures called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal, or HPA, axis, which reduces your reactivity to stress. Typically, studies recommend at least 20 minutes of moderately intense aerobic exercise such as running, biking, or swimming, to get the best mental health effects, but any activity you enjoy and will do consistently will help.
Sleep deprivation is like rocket fuel for neuroticism. A study by researchers at Stanford found that after one night of sleep deprivation, participants showed almost no activity and a part of the brain involved in emotional regulation and significantly increased activity in areas involved with emotional responses. Participants rated their anxiety levels as being 30 percent higher after one night of sleep deprivation. Another study, this one from researchers at Berkeley, found that sleep-deprived participants were more likely to interpret friendly and neutral facial expressions as threatening. In other words, if you are already prone to interpreting situations as threatening, sleep deprivation is likely to make matters much worse, so try to get at least eight hours of sleep each night.
As a personality trait, emotional stability changes very slowly over time. The good news for people with low emotional stability is that it tends to improve with age. You can help it along with therapy and self-care. What’s essential is to make a persistent effort to pay attention to your emotions, understand how they relate to your thinking, assumptions, and beliefs, and learn to acknowledge them rather than suppress them. Recovery from addiction isn’t just about abstinence; it’s a journey of self-awareness and having a better relationship with yourself and others. At Hired Power, we can help you develop a plan for every phase of recovery and we can help you follow through, supporting you all the way. To learn more about our addiction recovery services, explore our website or call us today at 714-559-3919.
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