A common question we get here at Two Dreams is, “why me?” People want to know what it is about their core that makes them an addict.
They want to know why they are dependent on drugs while their friends are able to use in moderation. Were they born that way? Is it the way they were raised? Is there a certain type of person more susceptible to developing addictive tendencies?
Most people who use drugs never actually become addicted. Some substances are more addictive than others by virtue of their chemical makeup, but addiction is comprised of so much more than physical dependence, such as psychological factors and situational circumstances.
Studies show that there is not actually a definitive “addictive personality type,” though there are certain personality traits and mannerisms that addicts seem to share. This observation is a prime example of correlation vs. causation, in which characteristics may appear to be linked to addiction, but there is no actual established relationship of cause-and-effect.
There are three main personality traits that seem in increase the risk of addiction:
Impulsive individuals often act without thinking; they make emotional, spur-of-the-moment decisions without considering the consequences of their actions. Their self-control is lacking, and they are known to take risks.
Catchphrase: "It seemed like a good idea at the time!"
Sensation-seeking individuals make decisions based on their feelings and physical desires. They want to feel good and tend to seek out new experiences based on the likelihood of feeling high.
Catchphrase: "What a rush!"
Compulsive individuals act as a result of irresistible urges. They may be consciously against the actions that they are taking, but feel compelled to continue anyway. Their bad habits may result in terrible consequences, but these individuals become set in their ways and find it difficult to stop the cycle of compulsion.
Catchphrase: "I can’t stop…"
The spectrum of personality is difficult to quantify, but in general it seems that possessing “high” levels of one or more of the aforementioned traits may increase the risk of developing addiction.
In one study published by Nature, researchers looked at the brain activity of dependent drug users’ siblings. The siblings had high levels of activity in the parts of the brain associated with impulsivity, yet had normal levels of activity in the parts of the brain associated with sensation-seeking. These findings suggest that siblings are similarly at risk for addiction, but are protected by their lower interest in sensation seeking; in other words, they never felt the desire to try drugs in the first place, so they never became addicted.
In another study published by Nature, researchers compared the brain activity of recreational, non-dependent cocaine users with dependent cocaine users. Both groups had high levels of activity in the parts of the brain associated with sensation seeking, but the non-dependent users had normal levels of activity in the parts of the brain associated with impulsivity and compulsivity. In other words, the recreational users were thrill-seekers, but were able to appropriately evaluate the risks of negative consequences and use without forming a compulsive habit.
Clinicians can identify individuals at high risk for addiction by using brain imaging technology, cognitive-behavioral testing, and/or simple questionnaires. In general, sensation-seeking individuals will show a tendency toward seeking out rewards in any form. Impulsive individuals will show a lack of self-control as evidenced by low levels of activity in the prefrontal cortex, otherwise known as the “executive center of the brain.” Compulsive individuals will easily develop habits.
Knowing the risk of addiction may motivate some individuals to avoid use, which would of course be a clinical victory. Otherwise though, this area merits more research and work towards an effective use of this information. Individuals on extreme ends of the personality spectrums of sensation seeking, impulsivity, and compulsivity may be at high risk for addiction, but all humans engage in these behaviors from time to time. You are not defined by your neurological makeup; you are still in charge of your behavior and you are still in control of your destiny.