Part Two of a Three Part Article Written by Randi G. Fine
Much has been written about genetic predisposition and its relationship to addictive personalities. Having an addict in the family does not guarantee that everyone in the family will become addicts. But many believe that hereditary factors can raise a person’s level of vulnerability to substance abuse or other addictions. That may explain why some gamble in moderation and others compulsively—why some can drink for enjoyment and others become alcoholics.
It does seem as if those with the genetic predisposition will engage in some type of excessive behavior but will not necessary choose the same stimuli they have been exposed to. Adult children of alcoholics may never drink but they may become addicted to gambling. Children of drug addicts may exercise excessively or be workaholics.
There is no single gene that determines a person’s susceptibility to addiction. Studies comparing identical and fraternal twins estimate that genetic factors account for 40 to 60 percent of the occurrence of the gene variation.
Researchers have discovered a number of genes that link to addiction through DNA testing. One gene causes dizziness and nausea from smoking and is more present in non-smokers than smokers. Alcoholism is rare in those who have two copies of the ALDH2 gene. Other genes have been linked to narcotic dependency.
Variants in certain genes have been shown to suppress dopamine signals in the brain. Those with these blunted receptors have the need to seek higher levels of stimulation to reach the same level of pleasure as those who don’t have the variants. DNA testing can offer vital clues in battling addiction but the use of it is very controversial. The concern is that some may use this information for discrimination purposes.
It comes down to the nature versus nurture argument. Environment and upbringing are believed to be equally important in shaping the personality. Our life circumstances and emotional experiences may have more influence than our genetic make-up does. Under this theory no matter our chemical make-up, we still have the ability to choose and control our actions.
There are factors that may indicate a higher risk of developing a serious addiction. People who have difficulty thinking about the long term consequences of their actions are more susceptible to developing an addiction. So are those who do everything in excess and/or to extremes, and those who habitually substitute one compulsion for another. For example, stressed out workaholics may come home at the end of the day and start drinking to help them relax. They may use cybersex because they don’t have time for real relationships. They may stress-eat.
Those with addictive personalities are most vulnerable during periods of heightened stress such as adolescence and times of transition. People who suffer from mental illnesses, emotional disorders, and personality disorders are highly prone to addiction as well. Without being aware that they have a condition, they may self-medicate to manage emotions using substances or behaviors to relieve whatever discomfort they may feel.
Nonconformists, non-achievers, and those with deviant personalities are also prime candidates for addiction. Many adult addicts report having been subjected to deprivation or overindulgence in their childhoods. Others report that they were negatively impacted by their parents’ constant, unpredictable fluctuation between over-praise and over-criticism.
Addictions are unmanageable, excessive, and repetitive. The addiction activity begins harmlessly with a pleasurable experience, but over time more and more of the activity is needed to achieve the same effect. People become dependent on the high they get and find it difficult to stop the behavior. If deprived of their fix they will find a substitute. If forced to stop the behavior they will suffer physical or psychological symptoms of withdrawal that compel them to resume the addiction. Over time they lose the ability to cope with life without the addictive stimuli.
People with addictions will deny that what they’re doing is detrimentally affecting them while work, family, and social relationships suffer and their health declines. Their desperation often lead them to take extremes in getting the fix, which ultimately creates financial and legal issues.
Addictions can be classified as hard or soft. Hard addictions, also known as substance addiction, are categorized by the rapid affect they have on many aspects of the person’s behavior as well as the effect they have on everyone around him or her. Abuse of alcohol, barbiturates, and narcotics are usually the source of this type of addiction. This is different than substance abusers who use from time to time. Substance addicts spend every waking moment finding ways to buy and use drugs or alcohol.
With soft addictions the abuser uses activities that are harmless to most people. The consequences of those behaviors are not immediately felt. Cigarette smoking and coffee drinking are two commonly known examples of soft addictions. It is much easier to hide soft addictions and cover up the behaviors that result from them. But soft-addictions have the propensity to lead to more serious addictions down the road.
Gambling is another common example of a soft addiction. Gamblers with addictive personalities go through three stages. In the first phase, also known as the winning phase, the person has control over his or her behavior. The second stage is known as the losing phase. In this phase the person begins gambling alone, gambling large sums of money, and borrowing cash to pay off mounting debt. The third phase is called the desperation phase. In this phase the gambler engages in more risky, sometimes illegal behavior. In desperation he or she may borrow money from non conventional sources. Depression and attempted suicide are common in the third phase of gambling.
Other examples of soft addictions are eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia, and compulsive over-eating. Though there are other factors that contribute to this type of behavior, it can develop into pathological behavior that is very similar to addiction. The anorexic fixates on the goal of losing weight. Once the person begins dieting he or she finds it very hard to stop. Those with bulimia are after the same goal as those who are anorexic , but the mode of operation is different. Instead of limiting their diet they binge on large amounts of food and then purge it before their bodies have the chance to digest it. Compulsive eaters are not concerned with weight loss or weight gain, though the disorder often results in obesity. They have a compulsive urge to eat, whether hungry or not.
Something as beneficial as exercising can become a preoccupation or addiction to those who are predisposed to having one. Running is the most prevalent; runners are known to get a runner’s high and can become dependent on it. This is attributed to mood-enhancing chemicals called endorphins that are released during exercise. An addiction occurs when the exercise activity is used as an escape or a coping mechanism. It’s a problem when it becomes so excessive that the body suffers injury, and when it negatively impacts relationships.
Compulsive buying falls under the category of soft addictions. Those who do it are addicted to the buzz it gives them. It has nothing to do with what they are buying, it is simply their drug. They buy only for the sake of buying without ever intending to use it. Those with this disorder often suffer from other disorders such as depression, mood swings, and anxiety. Buying gives them temporary relief, but after they do it they feel heightened anxiety and intense guilt. One study showed that twenty percent of compulsive buyers suffer from an eating disorder as well.
The two newest additions to the soft-addiction category are Internet abuse and cell phone abuse. They are more prevalent in younger generations, though there is a significant number of older people who develop these addictions as well.
Those who have an Internet addiction, also known as pathological Internet use, find they cannot control their usage of it. They may be drawn to online games, social networking sites, or other online sites, and will spend an excessive amount of time there. The use becomes an addiction when withdrawal symptoms such as mood changes are suffered when they are away from it.
Some people become addicted to cyber relationships. A problem occurs when these relationships are used to avoid face to face, interpersonal interactions. This addiction can lead to social, psychological, and work or school problems.
A recent study shows that those who are addicted to cell phone use display behaviors very similar to those with addictive personalities—low self-esteem, approval seeking, insecurity. Cell phones have become indispensable in our lives, but they can reinforce the tendency of over-attachment for those with addictive personalities.