When working with someone coping with addiction, it is worth thinking about the ways in which personality traits might be a significant factor in both understanding how the addiction took hold and the ways in which it might help with recovery.
Personality and addictive patterns can affect many things, including:
- psychological well-being
- health risk behaviours
- educational or workplace achievements
- coping mechanisms
Why would this be?
The Bright Side
Personality assessments are mostly used to determine our “bright side” - typical patterns in our behaviour that are consistent with how we see ourselves and how others see us. These patterns help predict how we will typically react in everyday life. Back in the 1980s, a world forum of leading psychologists agreed on a framework upon which “bright side” personality traits could be measured. This came to be known as the “Big 5” and describes the ways in which people seem:
- Open to experience
- Conscientiousness and dependable
- Extroverted or Introverted
- Agreeable or disagreeable
- Stable or neurotic
Think of each factor as a sliding scale from low to high. Someone lower on “open to experience” might enjoy engaging in things that they already know how to do, whilst someone higher on the scale will be keener to try new things. Both of these positions are worthwhile in themselves. These traits also give us a reputation. For example, we might say someone is “too narrow” or has their “head in the clouds”. Academic research has shown a relationship between personality and addiction. Here are a few interesting findings:
- Cigarette smokers score lower on measures of dependability
- Cocaine and heroin users score very low on dependability and very high on scales for neuroticism
- Marijuana users score low on dependability, agreeableness, and high on openness to experience.
Further, with marijuana studies, it is often demonstrated that long-time users have personality traits associated with low mood, emotionality and are more likely to be seen as unconventional.
The Dark Side
We can also use personality tests to measure our “dark side” - patterns of behaviour that we see more of when we become stressed. We all have pressures prompts and stress responses. Most of the time they are useful as they help us to cope with everyday life and to deal with the unexpected. The famous German psychoanalyst Karen Horney, identified 3 typical stress patterns that are often described as “flight, fight or freeze”
- Flight - we become more reserved, standing away to protect ourselves from the effects of something we don’t understand. We might look and sound agitated, but it’s harder for others to reach out and console us.
- Fight - we get involved and try to shape things the way we think they should be. We argue our case, make quick decisions or try and use charm and persuasion to get our way. We seem full and might be overbearing to others.
- Freeze - we seem doubtful of what to do other than please others or play by the rules. We get stuck in the moment; seek to control things we wouldn’t normally do and seem perfectionist or needy.
Whatever our own pattern is (and we might have all three!), our responses make us anxious
. Imagine being stressed most of the time. You will find a way of coping with these feelings in order to calm down. Or you will find alternative ways to avoid dealing with the reason you became stressed in the first place. Identifying the ways in which stress patterns might overplay into addiction is one way in which understanding your personality traits can help you. If addiction
starts out as a way of protecting us from harm, by identifying unique stress patterns we can figure out the real harm and see the ways in which addiction doesn’t have a long-term positive impact. Think about a future where you can recognise stress factors in yourself and find an alternative, more beneficial ways to get help and support.
Valuing what’s inside
Studying personality allows us to measure the “inside” - what we find motivating and the things that give us drive. These are the things we value. Simply put, if we are living and working in ways that we value we will be less prone to distress. It follows that a lifestyle with a more productive and purposeful quality to it will reduce the desire to maintain our addictions. Recently, more attention has been given to using personality traits to work out the best ways to support people. This is then followed up with well designed, individual treatment plans. Here are some things we already know:
- Neuroticism influences the intensity and duration of distress
- Extraversion influences enthusiasm for getting help and treatment
- Openness and Agreeableness influence reactions to the therapist
- Conscientiousness influences willingness to do the work
Can we do a better job of tailoring therapeutic interventions to individual needs? Does an understanding of personality help? The answer to both these questions are yes. And that leads to a fuller and deeper approach to giving you the help you need. Please get in touch with us to find out more. Andy Cole