The brain is usually likened to a very complex computer. Rather than electrical units on the silicon chips that control electronic devices, our brain consists of billions and billions of cells, referred to as neurons, which are structured into networks and circuits. Every neuron serves as a switch that controls the flow of information. The question is, do these neuron networks have an effect on an alcoholic’s personality?
The concept of an “addictive personality” or having an “addictive personality disorder” is controversial in the addiction recovery community. On the one hand, it’s a useful and straightforward explanation for determining why some people may become addicted to alcohol, drugs, compulsive activities, and even problematic emotions. On the other hand, this addictive personality is not currently recognized by the established medical community as a genuine disorder.
What does the current research suggest? What evidence do we have on both sides of the controversy? And what do we do with this information moving forward?
Addictive disorders, like substance dependence and abuse, are typical disorders that involve the excessive use of drugs and alcohol. Addiction then develops over time and eventually becomes a chronic illness.
Almost all substance use disorders entail physical addiction symptoms. These symptoms vary depending on the substance, but they can include telltale signs like:
Medical professionals who aim to debunk this concept of an addictive personality often point to these physical symptoms as evidence that addiction requires an outside agent (i.e., the drugs or alcohol) to trigger biological changes. They argue that these changes then result in further substance use to avoid more distressing physical symptoms (known as withdrawal). This ongoing cycle perpetuates the addiction.
Often these professionals argue that non-substance related compulsions like gambling, pornography, or video games aren’t true “addictions” because they don’t entail physical changes or withdrawal effects. They might consider them compulsions, as compulsions refer to intense urges to act out in a particular behavior.
Many researchers and professionals support the theory of the addictive personality. They argue that the brain experiences the same physical symptoms and changes in the brain among all substance use disorders and non-substance compulsions.
Researchers made use of optogenetics to determine the brain circuits that are responsible for compulsive behaviors in laboratory mice. The discoveries could pave the way for new approaches for helping treat obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) as well as other conditions that include compulsive behavior.
There’s no doubt that drugs interfere with optimal brain functioning. Research shows that alcohol and drugs can cause neurotransmitters to release abnormally large amounts of certain hormones like dopamine or serotonin, which disrupt the natural communication process. Drugs and alcohol also impact the parts of the brain associated with:
However, emerging research also shows that compulsive issues related to disordered eating, sex, shopping, gambling, and technology can also interfere and restructure the brain. Thus, there does appear to be a strong argument for how repetitive and problematic patterns reinforce the cycle of addiction.
Furthermore, some professionals argue that addiction is more of a ‘state of mind’ rather than a cluster of physical symptoms. They look more towards the psychological relationship people have with their compulsive issues, and they often look at how the problem impacts other areas of the person’s functioning. For example, they would examine information related to:
There are specific, psychological traits that point to addictive personality, including:
Insecurity: People with an addictive personality often have relationship problems due to their heightened insecurity. They often desperately fear abandonment and rejection. They may fail to commit to others, and they may also have an incredibly hard time with trust and honesty. Insecurity can manifest in a variety of ways. People may become controlling, hostile, passive, or withdrawn. Often, they long to be close to others, but the concern about getting hurt prevents them from doing so. As a result, they tend to seek constant approval, but the approval rarely feels satisfactory.
Antisocial: People with an addictive personality may struggle with social relationships. They may isolate or alienate themselves from others. They often turn down social invitations or only attend an event for a short amount of time. If they do have to be social, interactions tend to be brief and tight-lipped. They may seem shy or even rude around others. Often, even if they have the desire for closeness, they don’t know how to let their guard down.
Isolation and loneliness: People with an addictive personality may feel very isolated and lonely. These feelings can occur even if they report having a positive support system. It’s not uncommon for people struggling with addiction to have loving friends, family, and coworkers. Unfortunately, they often experience a profound sense of disconnect from the world around them.
Difficulties or inability to cope with stress: People with an addictive personality disorder often have limited distress tolerance skills. Although stress is an unavoidable part of life, they often feel overwhelmed, bombarded, or inept at managing it. As a result, they may react quickly and impulsively. Often, they want to escape their feelings, which makes drugs and alcohol so alluring.
Poor impulse control: People with an addictive personality often lack skills rooted in delayed gratification and long-term planning. Instead, they often live in the present moment and make moments based on current feelings. This makes it hard for them to understand and work through the long-term consequences associated with addiction.
Repeated or ‘transfer’ addiction: It’s not uncommon for people to have one or more addictions. It’s also not unusual to “trade” addictions. For example, if an individual becomes sober from alcohol, he may justify abusing sleeping pills because it’s not “the same” as drinking. Unfortunately, the same dangerous behaviors tend to repeat themselves, and a relapse in all problems remains common.
SUD or Substance use disorder is a complicated condition where there is uncontrolled and excessive use of a substance such as alcohol or drugs in spite of harmful consequences. People suffering from SUD have a strong compulsion to use certain substance(s) such as tobacco, illegal drugs, or alcohol to the extent where the individual’s ability to function regularly becomes impaired. The most serious cases of SUDs are oftentimes referred to as addictions.
If you believe you struggle with an addictive personality, the best course of treatment is usually professional treatment via extensive psychotherapy. To stop the cycle of ongoing addiction, you must be willing to address the root of the problem.
In improving self-awareness, developing coping skills, understanding addiction, and learning how to cope with stress, you can work on your problematic character traits. You can also increase your chances of living a meaningful life in recovery.
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