Addiction comes in many forms, from the gambler to the overeater to the drug abuser. Research has found, though, that people who engage in addictive behaviors tend to have certain characteristics in common.
“They’re often impulsive and tend to have a low tolerance for frustration, for example,” says Sheila Hermes, M.Ed., supervisor of the women’s recovery program at Hazelden in Center City, Minn. “These and other personality traits common among people who abuse alcohol and drugs can be warning signs that a person may have a higher risk of becoming an addict.”
Although personality can play a role in addiction, social and environmental factors also have an influence.
No single set of psychological characteristics is common to all addicts, according to a study prepared by the National Academy of Sciences. The report did find that following “significant personality factors” contribute to addiction:
A tendency toward impulsive behavior. This can make it difficult to delay gratification and lead to sensation-seeking.
A high value on nonconformity. This is combined with a weak commitment to achievement goals. “Clearly, an addict’s behavior results in actions that don’t conform to society’s expectations or demands,” Hermes says.
A sense of social alienation and a general tolerance for deviance. “Many people who struggle with addiction say they always felt like they were on the outside because they never fit in while in school or after,” Hermes says. “Of course, addiction further isolates them from others.”
High stress. This may explain why adolescence and life’s other stressful transition periods tend to be associated with severe drug and alcohol problems.
Other possible traits and psychological issues noted in people who tend toward substance abuse include lack of self-esteem, depression, and chronic anxiety.
Becoming familiar with these traits, and addressing them before the person turns to alcohol or drugs to ease the pain he or she feels, could help a loved one avoid addiction, Hermes says. “Anytime you can be proactive instead of reactive, that’s a good thing.”