“I'm so addicted to this [show, food, hobby]!” is a phrase that’s thrown around nonchalantly. You may find yourself using it before reaching for another piece of cake, starting the next episode in a Netflix binge or engaging in an even more harmful vice.
But despite how frequently the word is used nowadays, there's a difference between your bad impulse control and true addiction. That doesn’t mean that something unhealthy — or potentially something harmful — isn’t going on.
The key is to break down what you mean when you use the word “addiction” in reference to your habits and to know the difference between having a difficult time saying no and a mental health issue.
How to Know If It’s Harmless…
A lot of people lean on the phrase "addictive personality" to describe what drives them to engage in various activities excessively. “When people say, ‘I’m an addictive personality,’ I think a lot of it has to do with always wanting more,” says Roseann Rook, a clinical addiction specialist at Timberline Knolls.
Maybe it’s, “If I eat one cookie, I have to eat the whole box,” or, “If I go on a roller coaster once, I have to go 10 times,” she explains. But despite what it may sound like, an addictive personality isn't a clinical diagnosis.
So what’s the difference between doing something you enjoy frequently and being truly addicted? It comes down to whether the activity messes with your functioning or your life in some negative way. “That is a key indicator that someone has crossed the line into an addictive behavior versus doing something compulsively,” says Michele Pole, Ph.D., director of psychology at Caron Treatment Centers.
For example, consider someone who hits the gym often in an effort to shed excess weight, but this ends up putting him at risk for loads of health issues. His exercise habit is based on good intentions and is generally pretty healthy. Compare that to someone who heads to the gym multiple times a day to skip out on family functions or to avoid confronting their feelings. That could be a case of exercise addiction.
...Or Something More Serious
There are certain traits that many people battling addiction share, but it’s not as simple as saying if you have a set of traits you are destined to become an addict, Pole says. There’s also a chemical makeup — an “addictive brain” — that comes into play and puts people at a predisposition for addiction, Rook says.
In a 2017 paper published in the Global Journal of Addiction & Rehabilitation Medicine, Mark D. Griffiths writes that he doesn't believe in the concept of "addictive personalities." Instead, he believes that there are certain personality traits that can help predict if someone might cross the line from someone will bad impulse control into full-blown addiction. Here are eight such traits or behaviors:
Neuroticism is a personality trait that many addicts share. A meta-analysis published in 2015 in the Journal of Drug Education examined 20 studies that looked at the relationship between alcohol use and the big five personality traits — extraversion, neuroticism, agreeableness, openness and conscientiousness.
Researchers found those who rated high in neuroticism were more likely to have alcohol-related problems. And while there is little agreement on a set definition, those who score high on neuroticism are also more likely to experience moodiness, anxiety, anger, frustration, guilt and loneliness.
2. Difficulty Dealing With Emotions
Though addiction is a disease of the brain, “nearly everyone who struggles with addiction has difficulty regulating emotions and difficulty with tolerating distress,” Pole says. This can be the result of genetics or their environment, and it often leads to engaging in an unhealthy behavior under the belief that “if I do that, I’ll feel better,” Rook says.
3. Trouble Asking for Help
Yet rather than asking for help when dealing with difficult emotions, people faced with a potential addiction oftentimes decide to self-medicate. “A person finds that if they eat a lot of sugar, it feels good and maybe they don’t feel as sad or as anxious,” Pole says.
That kicks off a routine of reaching for cookies whenever anything unpleasant happens. Although any compulsive or addictive behavior — not just eating sweets — can be substituted here.
4. Sensation Seeking
Thrill seekers — people who crave new, exciting situations and experiences (no matter how dangerous) — are at an increased risk of substance abuse, with the trait being more common among adolescents than adults. One 2004 study published in Psychological Reports found that adolescents who were classified as sensation seeking were more prone to drug use.
5. Acting Impulsively
Acting quickly without thinking about the consequences has been linked to abusing alcohol, tobacco, cocaine and opiates. And acting impulsively can leave the addict trying to justify why they did what they did. “A person will know logically that it doesn’t make sense or is wrong, however, the addictive brain has to find ways to minimize or rationalize or justify it in order to keep doing it,” Rook says.
6. Needing Positive Reinforcement
There must be some upside to the behavior to fuel the addiction. “Somebody who has an addiction or has that chemical makeup, it does something for them — there’s a click,” Rook says. Pole says she has told people she works with, “You wouldn’t have kept drinking if it didn’t do something for you.” That positive reinforcement leads to continuing the behavior.
7. Chasing Instant Gratification
People who are all about instant gratification, or what Rook calls the drive to “feel good fast,” may find themselves reaching for a cigarette, dessert, another drink — whatever — whenever the urge strikes. They become dependent on that feeling and fill it with whatever feels good at the moment.
8. Replacing One Addiction With Another
If an addict is able to quit one behavior, there is a fair risk they will fill the void with another. “A lot of people have gone from alcohol to food to sex: There’s that drive within them to have to fill something,” Rook says. Some people fill empty feelings with human connection or spirituality, but someone who is prone to addiction looks to less-virtuous behaviors.
How to Get Help
If this sounds like you, Pole recommends getting assessed by an expert in addiction treatment. Make sure it is someone you feel comfortable opening up to. “If you’re not honest, you’re not going to get a good assessment and see a true picture of if there’s a problem or not,” she says.
Simply recognizing there may be a problem is a great start. “If someone believes they may have a problem, they probably do,” Pole says. “Otherwise they wouldn’t be questioning it.”
Whether it’s an addiction or another type of mental health issue, if you feel like it is worth getting help for, it is. You can call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration hotline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357) or find online resources on the website.