People have strange ways of coming to terms with their personality traits. But often, the people who have the most issues are the ones who hide. Meanwhile, the oblivious sector of the population loftily proclaim things like, “I have an addictive personality!” But what does that even mean?
No, it does not mean that people really really love to be around you. And no, it does not mean that after you watch an episode of “Breaking Bad” you’re totally addicted. What it does mean is that a person has a cluster of personality characteristics that make them more inclined to be addicted to certain highly charged activities.
So what are addictive behaviors? Addictive behaviors can include gambling, alcohol and drugs, exercise, sex, eating disorders, trichotillomania/dermatillomania, or compulsive shopping. One of the core features of addictions is the inability to think before you leap, otherwise known as impulsivity. Impulsivity is not in and of itself the sole driving force behind addictions, because it’s simply a character trait—granted it’s one that is highly common in people with true addictive personalities. But then again, it’s also highly common in people with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and not all people with ADHD are addicts.
So what are the common threads connecting addictive personalities? One thing that is almost an absolute in the addiction world is the role of dopamine. Dopamine is an important neurotransmitter that is the central driving force behind seeking rewards and pleasure. Several diseases are associated with dopamine-deficiencies, primarily Parkinson’s disease and schizophrenia. But in the realm of addictions, dopamine (and sometimes serotonin) is essentially what a person can become addicted to. For some people’s brains, when they engage in a repetitive, impulsive, often thrill-seeking behavior, dopamine is released which makes them feel amazing. This can drive them to engage in that activity over and over again.
Depending on the abuser’s “substance” of choice, an addiction can be either primarily physical or primarily behavioral. To put it simply, think of the stereotypical withdrawal symptoms that a cocaine, alcohol, or heroin abuser experiences when they stop “using.” They experience physiological reactions to quitting the drug, such as nausea, vomiting, insomnia, sweating, shaking, and depression. These aren’t simply brought on by seriously just missing the drug—a person’s body becomes literally dependent on it. Creepy, eh?
Those addictions that are primarily behavioral include those that typically fulfill some sort of emotional need. Some people shop for fun, and some people shop because they connect shopping with being happy, and credit cards get used to their, ahem, full potential. Other activities, like exercising, can be categorized as both physical (endorphin release, i.e. runner’s high) and behavioral (associating running with quiet, achievement, etc). If we’re being completely honest, most addictive activities probably are both physical and behavioral and researchers just haven’t sorted out the details yet.
Yes, you might see yourself reflected in many of these different scenarios and that’s OK. Really, what it comes down to with any mental health issue is to what degree it interferes with your daily life. Are you healthy? Can you hold a job, get enough sleep, pay your bills, have healthy relationships? If yes, then you’re doing pretty damn well. For instance, 54% of Americans over the age of 18 drink coffee every day. I would hazard a guess that a decent amount of that group would experience some withdrawal effects if they didn’t get their cup (or five cups) of caffeinated joy. I know that if I don’t get enough coffee I get a roaring headache, nausea, blurry vision—the works. But do we go around closely regulating coffee like we do cocaine? No. Because the effects on a person’s life aren’t as dramatic*. If the addiction is bleeding into every realm of your existence – such as having to take smoke breaks, fearing the loss of your “substance,” etc – then you might be at a point where you need to be more concerned.
In the end, the best thing I can say about the whole mess of addictive tendencies is to be aware of your behavior patterns, and of your family’s behavior patterns. Most issues don’t just come out of the blue—whether you have an aunt that loves exercising just a little too much, or that grandparent that was jokingly referred to as the family drunk. Much like other mental illnesses, addictive personality traits are heritable. Knowing your risks, just like you would want for any other disease, is the smart thing to do. Finally, reaching a point of recognizing your addiction is the first step in recovery, and almost the most crucial, so don’t be afraid of taking time for some healthy introspection.
* Granted, if you’re having trouble sleeping at night, experiencing GI distress, or racing heart beats, I would recommend taking a look at the the volume and timing of your caffeine consumption…
What are your thoughts on addictive traits and addictions? Let us know @litdarling or in the comments below!
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