The Psychology of Addiction

The brain as technology

Dane O'Leary July 15, 2020

When someone abuses drugs despite knowing its harmful effects, we often look in from the outside and wonder what they’re thinking. Addiction psychology helps us better understand an addicted person’s mind space. 

Simply put, addiction psychology aims to explain and treat the mental and emotional aspects of substance use. Mental health professionals in this field, apply clinical research to diagnose, assess, treat, and support people with substance use problems. 

The psychology of addiction has, as a topic, an incredible breadth. So although we’ll be giving you lots of great information in this article, we’ll really only be scratching the surface when it comes to the mind-matters of substance abuse. 

Specifically, we’ll explain the relationship between substance abuse and self-destructive behavior, explore if your personality type is more susceptible to addiction than others, and consider the nature of the link between these two subjects. 

Addiction and Self-Sabotage: Connecting the Dots

According to Psychology Today, behavior is self-sabotaging when it “creates problems in daily life and interferes with long-standing goals.” As you can see, this is a broad description that can apply to fairly innocuous behaviors like comfort eating and procrastination. But for our present discussion, we’re primarily concerned with a more severe form a self-sabotage.

The recreational misuse of alcohol and drugs is absolutely a form of self-sabotage. After all, virtually anyone who indulges in substance abuse knows that there’s a strong chance of adverse consequences, and yet they do it anyway.

However, you must also consider that there are many of these individuals who exhibit self-sabotaging behavior but want to stop. In such instances, what is it that fuels his or her self-sabotage? 

In addition to the physiological side of chemical dependency, self-destructive behavior comes down to how addiction damages our psychological reward system. 

Let’s break down this connection between addiction and self-sabotage by explaining how the brain’s reward system works, and how drugs damage it.

  • Our brains are wired to endure small spikes in dopamine (a feel-good hormone) when we experience something positive. This is why something like a hug from a loved one makes us feel good. 
  • According to evolutionary biology, our brains gained this ability to provide a “reward” (i.e. a pleasurable feeling) so it could tag certain behaviors as ones that we should repeat in the future, often to ensure our survival. This is why experiences like eating and sex trigger a neurological pleasure response that motivates us to repeat those behaviors in the future. 
  • Unfortunately, the human brain isn’t infallible and can effectively be tricked into triggering a pleasure response, which is what happens when a person uses drugs. For example, the euphoric high that a cocaine user experiences is the result of a surge of dopamine that the brain releases in direct response to the cocaine use.
  • But the amount of dopamine released into the brain from using cocaine is much larger than from normally-rewarded behaviors. Because drug high is unnaturally pleasurable, the drug use is strongly reinforced. As a result, the user will put a very high priority on repeating that behavior so he or she can experience those intense effects again, regardless of the potential consequences.
  • Over time, all the other feel-good behaviors will begin to pale in comparison. Moreover, the repeated drug use actually “rewires” the brain, leaving the individual powerless against the self-sabotaging behavior of addiction.  

Over time, people with substance use issues tend to realize their drug use is self-destructive but aren’t be able to stop without treatment interventions. 

Ending Self-Sabotage Begins With Self-Regulating 

A study of reward processing dysfunction among drug users shows that addiction treatment with a focus on improving a person’s psychological self-regulating capabilities can be very helpful in curbing self-sabotaging behavior. 

It also found that if anhedonia (a psychiatric term meaning a loss of enjoyment in typically pleasurable activities) existed prior to the participants’ addictions, it might relate more to a character trait than an experience. People with this character trait can then be prone to developing an addiction.  

Interestingly, whether your personality type can make you prone to substance use is a widely-researched topic in addiction psychology, one that celebrated author Maia Szalavitz also explored. She comes to the conclusion, similar to the above-mentioned study, that our self-regulating abilities are at the crux of the matter. And in the process, debunks addictive personality myths. 

Can Your Personality Make You Prone to Addiction?

According to Szalavitz, what makes people prone to addiction (aside from genetics, trauma, or social factors) is less about common traits in temperament and more about how those traits keep them from learning self-regulation. 

Challenging the Idea of an Addictive Personality Type

In her best-selling book, Unbroken Brain, Szalavitz interprets research studies about personality types prone to addiction, based on how her own character traits relate to her past addiction battles. 

She explains that the idea of a generic addictive personality is misguided: decades of addiction psychology research fails to find a common character trait present in all addicted people. If we look closely, what’s often labeled as an addictive personality is actually an inability to self-regulate our behavior. 

This underdeveloped sense of self-regulation, according to Szalavitz, comes from a collection of outlying character traits found in any personality type. In fact, “the whole range of human character can be found among people with addictions,” she says. 

Character Traits That Hamper Learning Self-Regulation 

What then are these high-risk, outlying character traits that impede us from developing healthy self-regulation?

Bold, adventurous and risk-taking

These are the people who are likely to experiment with different kinds of drugs. 

Cautious and inhibited

People with these traits are prone to conditions associated with addiction like depression or anxiety and, in turn, also self-medicating.

A combination of impulsive yet compulsive and rigid 

Szalavitz describes herself as having these opposing characteristics. She was a disciplined academic with a fundamental fear of change but also reckless enough to use and deal drugs. 

Summarizing all this in simpler terms, Szalavitz argues it’s not the outdated idea of an addictive personality type but the stunted self-regulation that comes from possessing traits on the extreme end of the personality spectrum, that make a person prone to addiction. 

This paves the way for future applications of her ideas in finding effective addiction prevention methods. 

Woman holding a sparkler

A Final Thought

Addiction is a complex, destructive yet treatable condition that people can recover from – and go on to lead productive, fulfilled lives.

Addiction is a complex condition. A firm grasp of the many nuances of this debilitating disease is probably something only those who have overcome it – and those who are committed to treating it – will have.

Despite the enormity of the topic, and our advances and limitations in understanding it, the thing to remember is that, even though it’s complex and highly destructive, addiction is a treatable condition that people can recover from – and go on to lead productive, fulfilled lives.

Visit Our Rehab in LA for Holistic Mental Health Treatment and Healing 

Silicon Beach Treatment Center is a high-quality, holistic mental health treatment center. Whether you’re looking for outpatient drug treatment, support for detox in Southern California, or a Los Angeles sober living home, we’re here to help. Speak to us today.

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