This morning, I picked up my phone to look at Instagram no less than 20 times. I'd just posted something new and wanted to know what people were saying about it. But as I reached for my phone yet again, a thought crossed my mind: Was I addicted to my phone?
I tend to get really excited about things, like new hobbies and activities, and this felt a little bit addictive, too. I'd heard people talk about addictive personalities on occasion, so I wondered: Do I have an addictive personality?
What is an "addictive personality"?
"Addictive personality" is described by the American Addiction Centers as an informal term that links particular personality traits to a higher risk of addiction or other problematic behaviors, like drug abuse, gambling, or even constant social media use.
"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," he says.
"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.
Is "addictive personality" a myth?
While "addictive personality" is a common phrase in public discourse, it's not actually a medical or scientific term. The scientific community has not yet identified an exact personality type that corresponds with heightened addiction risks—although scientific research has shown that there are a variety of personality traits and genetic combinations that can lead to a higher risk for developing addictions. Those factors are different for individual people.
"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."
In her book Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding Addiction, health journalist Maia Szalavitz reports that no single personality profile has been linked to addiction, despite decades of research on the subject. If you think you're addicted to something because of who you are or because of your personality, you've been led astray.
Signs of an "addictive personality."
"Although I do not believe in the concept of addictive personality, this does not mean that personality factors are not important in the acquisition, development, and maintenance of addictive behaviors," Mark Griffiths, Ph.D., a professor of behavioral addiction at Nottingham Trent University, wrote in a 2017 review. "They clearly are."
There are a few signs and signals to watch for that might signal that you may have a higher risk for developing an addiction. These signs include:
- Keeping habits that reduce your overall well-being. "If someone is addicted to a substance or a behavior, they will engage in the habit even though major elements of their lives might be placed in jeopardy as a result, including their jobs, housing, and primary love relationships," Boyd says.
- You can't quit. Someone with an "addictive personality" will be unable to stop a certain behavior on their own, even if they want to change, Boyd says. This is usually because of the misery associated with quitting.
- An addiction to another substance. Research shows1 people who are addicted to one substance or activity, like cannabis or tobacco use, are more likely to become addicted to another kind of substance, like alcohol.
Koob says we must remember, though, that these are just risk factors. "They are not guarantees that a person will develop a substance use disorder," he says.
Traits of people with a high risk for addiction.
People who are at a higher 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 research2 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. The American Addiction Centers highlights that several other disorders, including OCD, are more likely to co-occur with addiction.
- Impulsive tendencies and trouble self-regulating. A study1 about video game addiction found that impulsive people might be more prone to developing an addiction. Impulsiveness is defined3 as making decisions based on immediate impulses versus long-term goals. Koob says the likelihood of substance misuse is especially higher in people who have trouble regulating those impulses.
- 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 study1 about video gamers.
- ADHD. A sibling study4 from 1997 found certain people with ADHD may be more likely to develop substance use disorders, and more recent studies5 have found ADHD and substance use disorders tend to co-occur in the same patients. One 2010 study6 found ADHD and substance cravings "share some neurobiological similarities," and patients with addiction tend to have more cravings when they also have ADHD. While this doesn't mean that all people with ADHD will develop an addiction, there is a higher risk compared to the general population.
- 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. This is especially true for people who feel depressed or anxious following the traumatic event.
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."
When to worry.
If you're feeling concerned about being too attached to a habit, Boyd says the first step is to try to stop the behavior on your own. "See if your own awareness of what is happening is enough to change the behavior," he says. If you're able to stop, it's probably not an addiction. (The NIAAA website also has a useful tool called Rethinking Drinking that can help you evaluate your own relationship to alcohol.)
If you can't stop the behavior on your own, it's time to seek professional help. Boyd recommends Alcoholics Anonymous or other self-help groups as a way to cope, in addition to making an appointment with a psychiatrist or psychologist who specializes in working with people who have addictive behaviors. The NIAAA also offers a Treatment Navigator to help you find providers in your area.
If you think you might have an addiction, consider reaching out to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration via their helpline, at 800-662-4357. The National Drug Helpline also offers 24/7 help to people who are struggling with addiction: Call 844-289-0879.
Jenni Gritters is a health journalist and certified yoga teacher from Seattle, WA. She has a degree in psychology from Bucknell University and a master's degree in journalism from Boston University. She received her yoga teaching certification with Sendatsu Evolution. Gritters covers the science of healthy living, focusing on the newest scientific research about living a satisfying life. She runs a weekly column for Medium’s health magazine Elemental called "The Health Diaries", and she previously worked as an editor at The New York Times' product review site Wirecutter where she edited longform health, fitness, travel, and outdoors content.