Addictive Personality Disorder

When the term Addictive Personality Disorder comes to mind people instantly think that it means being addicted to an illicit substance and they quickly start wondering if they or someone they know suffers from this condition, as we are all apt to do when we learn of a new medical condition.  Having a substance abuse problem isn’t a factor when it comes to classifying this disorder.  Addictive personality disorder is actually better considered as a lack of being able to cope with stress or stressful situations causing an individual to resort to self-destructive behaviour, which can include but does not always include substance abuse.

Medical researchers have studied this phenomenon to try and discover the general causes of addictive tendencies by looking at biological, psychological, and environmental factors.  More importantly research was performed in order to see if it was possible to determine early signs and symptoms of addictive personality disorder and provide preventative treatment to people who may be predisposed or susceptible.  This doesn’t just include substance abuse, but many types of addictive behaviors such as:

  • Substance Abuse
  • Gambling
  • Shopping
  • Sexual Activity
  • Food Consumption
  • Over-Working
  • Over-Exercising

Are there certain mechanisms which contribute to the manifestation of these addictions in certain personality types?

Causes of Addictive Personality Disorder

addictive personality disorderFactors in the environment can be major contributors to drug abuse.  First and foremost, living in an environment in which drugs are readily available will increase the likelihood of obtaining them, therefore increasing risk of substance abuse.  Stress as we know is a big cause of addiction.  When people are stressed, they are under a lot of emotional tension and turmoil, which can manifest itself into even physical tension.  Being under discomfort, the mind can’t think at its optimal level, hindering decision and though process.  This domino effect can cause an individual to make a poor decision and turn to drugs as a source of release and escape.  Unfortunately the only thing this accomplishes is an introduction into the cycle of destruction.

A study was shown in primates that social status had a big effect on dopamine receptors in the brain.  Dopamine is a neurochemical that plays a large role in your brain relating to the rewards of positive emotions.  This neurotransmitter’s activity can be increased through the use of some illicit substances.  The study showed that primates higher up on the social totem pole had higher levels of dopamine being released by their dendrites and into their receptors as compared to the subordinate primates, who experienced less dopamine release and had higher levels of stress.  Both sets of primates were given cocaine injections, but the submissive primates became more heavily addicted versus the dominant primates who weren’t affected as much.

Nature and Nurture: Genetics and Environmental Factors

Sadly addiction is something that can be passed down to you from your parents.  Studies show that 40-60% of vulnerability to addiction can be linked to genetics.  This means that it is possible that someone has an addictive personality because his or her parent also dealt with addictive personality disorder.  That’s just a genetic factor.  What isn’t mentioned is the fact that the child is usually around to see their parents partake in addictive behaviors increasing the likelihood of becoming an addict.  Humans are social learners so as a child they don’t know any better and learn from who they are around the most, usually their parents.


Mental disorders can also be linked to addiction.  Statistics show that there is a higher prevalence of drug use disorder among people who suffer from mental illness.  Statistics on smoking showed that people suffering from bipolar disorder comorbid with addictive personality disorder on average smoke 20% more cigarettes compared to those who aren’t also diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

The Willpower Myth

A lot of people wonder, if drugs are so bad why don’t addicts just quit?  Research has shown that in the non-addicted brain, control function is able to constantly assess the value of stimulation and control cravings.  But In the addicted brain, saliency and habit increase causing the control center of the brain to be weakened which results in returning frequently to the addictive behaviors.  Addiction can be looked at as a trap.  Once you fall into it, it becomes something that is easier to perpetuate and is something that can be very hard to cease.

Prevention of Addictive Behaviors

Stop drug abuse before it starts.  Addiction is something that usually starts at a younger age and develops into adulthood.  Sixty seven percent of those who try marijuana for the first time are between the ages of 12-17.  In this stage of growth, a person is more likely to develop an addiction because the brain is wired differently than when they are more mature.  A youngster has less self-control, less knowledge, and an increased sense of experimentation and adventure.  It could be seen as when drugs are introduced to the brain at a younger age, the brain grows more accustomed to being stimulated by such substances as tolerances continue to grow stronger over time.

Social structure is a huge determinant of substance abuse.  According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the majority of teens with substance abuse problems began using drugs as a result of peer pressure.  It’s easy to see why people could succumb to substance abuse when something as powerful as peer pressure is on the table.  People by nature are social beings.  That means that as much as we deny this, we feel at least some need to fit in somehow to our surrounding environment and social hierarchy.  People succumb to peer pressure by thinking that declining the offer of drugs will lead to a loss of social status in the eyes of those among them.  Acting out of fear, the brain is able to trick itself into doing what it knows is the wrong decision.  We can arm young people with high self-esteem and the knowledge of the dangers of drugs to help prevent this mistake from happening.

Just knowing about what causes vulnerability to addiction can decrease likelihood of drug abuse. When you discover what makes you prone to addiction or traps you could fall into, you usually put more conscious awareness on these areas of life.  A lot of the time that’s what is needed to prevent yourself from caving in, or even trying out that addictive substance.  Knowledge and self-awareness are key preventative measures.  Having a licensed substance abuse counselor speak in schools is a great way to raise awareness of the issue.  Young people are going to be exposed to these topics regardless, so it might as well come from someone fighting the good fight.

Treatment is Available!

Thankfully there are treatment programs and substance abuse counselors that are ready and can help with every type of addiction.  One thing can be said for certain, is that no one treatment is right for every addict.  Some people will definitely have an easier time letting go of addiction than others, and some might quit for good in what William James termed a “conversion experience,” while others constantly relapse.  The most important paradigm an addict must take on is that once you become addicted, it will be a lifelong process of staying clean.  If you’ve been addicted then the imprint is there.  But the choice is ultimately yours whether or not that imprint will ever be accessed.  One must value the long-term benefits of staying clean over the short-term rewards of “falling off the wagon.”

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