February 24, 2020
Some people cannot stop tweeting; others stream endless episodes of a favorite TV series, drink gallons of coffee each week; bet on competitive sports; cover themselves with tattoos, jockey for position on video games, or visit tanning salons. While they may not be taking opioids, they still might be “addicted.”
But is there such a thing as an addictive personality? The informal answer is yes, according to the American Addiction Centers—one of the largest networks of rehab facilities nationwide.
Indeed, the rehabilitation experts describe “addictive personality” as an informal term that links particular personality traits to a higher risk of addiction or other problematic behaviors—such as drug abuse, cigarette smoking, gambling, or even constant social media use—according to a report by MindyBodyGreen
“The term is used colloquially to refer to people who have tendencies that appear to lead to addiction-like behaviors,” says George Koob, Ph.D., director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).
“Addictive personality” is a term often used in association with alcoholism, but you can also feel addicted to other things, like certain activities, people, foods, or physical objects. According to J. Wesley Boyd, M.D., Ph.D., an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School’s Center for Bioethics, behaviors like gambling, frequent social media use, or even video gaming can also be addictive.
“For people who are addicted to these behaviors—and even those who just derive intense enjoyment from them—engaging in these behaviors can result in the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that is the final common pathway of basically every drug of abuse,” Dr. Boyd told MindyBodyGreen.
He also notes that you can even be addicted to another person in a dating relationship because of this neurochemical response. That said, an unhealthy addiction is very different from healthy enthusiasm.
“Being addicted to something means it has taken over your life and that you are sacrificing important things in your life in service of the addiction,” says Boyd. Koob describes addiction similarly as “being stuck in a cycle in which a person binges on a substance, feels discomfort when the substance wears off, and is preoccupied with procuring and using the substance again.” (And again, this doesn’t apply only to physical substances—it can also be behaviors or experiences.)
On the flip side, “enthusiasm means that you might love something and even that you might look forward to it much of the time, but you are not and will not compromise basic important elements in your life,” Boyd says.
Some experts believe that the term “addicted” is used too loosely to explain behaviors that are closer to enthusiasm, so Boyd uses exercise as an example of this distinction: An enthusiastic exerciser will look forward to workouts but probably won’t work out when they’re sick, he says. An exercise “addict,” on the other hand, might continue exercising even when they have the flu, despite adverse outcomes.
“There are definitely individuals who are prone to become addicted in various ways,” Boyd says, noting that addiction is often a combination of both genetics and the environment. “Some of this is based on personal history, but much of it is determined by having a family history of addiction.”
According to MindBodyGreen, people who are at a higher-than-average risk for addiction may have some of the following markers:
- A close family member with an addiction. Boyd says individuals born to parents who have an addiction are more likely to become addicted themselves, and lots of research backs this up. Overall, it appears that genetic heritability affects addiction by between 40% and 70%—but Koob is careful to note that this genetic component comes from many different pathways, and the likelihood of developing an addiction is due to both the environment and your genetics.
- An OCD diagnosis. Several other disorders, including obsessive-compulsive disorder, are more likely to co-occur with addiction.
- Impulsive tendencies and trouble self-regulating. A study about video game addiction found that impulsive people might be more prone to developing an addiction.
- Low self-esteem. For certain people, low self-esteem also appears to be associated with a higher risk for developing an addiction, according to the study about video gamers.
- ADHD. A sibling study conducted in 1997 found certain people with ADHD may be more likely to develop substance use disorders, and more recent studies have found that ADHD and substance use disorders tend to co-occur in the same patients.
- Social anxiety. People who feel lonely and anxious during social events are more likely to develop problematic internet use tendencies, according to a 2007 study. This may be because scrolling the internet can feel soothing in the moment, which helps to reduce overall feelings of anxiety or discomfort.
- A traumatic history. Koob says people who have a history of abuse or trauma may be more likely to initiate substance abuse in order to reduce their discomfort.
Again, Koob is careful to note, “While there are tendencies that increase the risk of a substance use disorder, they don’t comprise a specific personality type, such as an addictive personality.”
Research contact: @mindbodygreen