Today millions of Americans are addicted to alcohol and drugs. While addictive tragedies strike every community in the nation. In order to break free from an addiction one must find the root of the cause and do something about it. One of the best places to begin is to research and understand the psychological makeup that is contributed to addiction. Are there common threads that weave through all addictions, from hard drugs to cigarettes, from gambling to overeating?

Some mental health experts find it useful to view addiction as including all self-destructive, compulsive behaviors despite the wide gulf between an addiction to drugs and an addiction to gambling. Compulsive television-watching is also included.

When it comes to drugs and alcohol, there is no single set of psychological characteristics that embrace all addictions according to a new study prepared for the National Academy of Sciences. However the report does find that there are several ”significant personality factors” that can contribute to addiction:

  • Impulsive behavior, difficulty in delaying gratification, an antisocial personality and a disposition toward sensation seeking.
  • A high value on nonconformity combined with a weak commitment to the goals for achievement valued by the society.
  • A sense of social alienation and a general tolerance for deviance.
  • A sense of heightened stress. This may help explain why adolescence and other stressful transition periods are often associated with the most severe drug and alcohol problems.

Alan R. Lang, a psychology professor at Florida State University and author of the study, believes that the continuing search for the personality traits that play a part in the development of addictions is an essential part of the broader fight against addiction. Others familiar with the field also share this perspective. Lang said in an interview, ”If we can better identify the personality factors they can help us devise better treatment and can open up new strategies to intervene and break the patterns of addiction.’’

Moreover, Dr. Lang believes that the insights provided by this kind of research could lead to much more effective preventive programs than those available today, to be used ”before problems reach the critical stage.” Other behavioral scientists who have studied addicts point to additional features of personality or background – a lack of self-esteem, marked depression or anxiety, physical or sexual abuse in childhood, and sharply conflicting parental expectations.

An associate clinical professor of psychiatry at the Cornell University Medical College, Lawrence J. Hatterer, wrote in his book, ”Addictive behavior has invaded every aspect of American life today. We all feel the cloud of concern about becoming addictive – preoccupation with weight, smoking, drinking too much, or being caught in an excess of spending, acquiring, gambling, sex or work.’’

Other activities done in excess, are also characterized as addictive behavior such as caffeine consumption, eating of chocolates or other sugar-laden foods, television watching, playing video games and even running or working out.

Dr. Hatterer is among those who believe that addictions of all kinds are similar. He likes to classify the abuse of alcohol, barbiturates and narcotics as ”hard addictions” because of the quickness with which such substances affect many aspects of behavior. Sadly though, they have a negative influence on the people who are close to and around the abuser. Dr. Hatterer views compulsive behaviors such as excessive smoking, gambling, running, spending or work as ”soft addictions.’’ This is because the consequences are not immediately felt by the abuser.

None-the-less, Dr. Hatterer, does not consider the above mentioned activities to be addictions unless they involve excessive, repetitive use of pleasurable activities to cope with unmanageable internal conflict, pressure and stress. When the process in the addict leads to increased activity to achieve the same effect even though the original activity began pleasurably, that is when it becomes a problem. The excessive behavior eventually results in injury to the person’s health or to his work, family and social relationships. The most difficult part of addiction is when the addict denies that his activity is detrimentally affecting him and others. Physical or psychological withdrawal pains,  result if they are forced to stop without assistance and often compel’s him to resume his excessive pattern.

Drinkers do not always become alcoholics and most runners do not become running addicts. The distinguishing characteristic to look for is moderation. If the runner is compulsively using his activity to cope with unresolved internal conflicts to the extent that he keeps injuring his body or destroying his work and family relationships, then he too has fallen victim to addictive behavior. He has become so dependent on the physical ”high” he gets from his running that he cannot concern himself with the difficulties it is causing.

Dr. Lang concluded, based on his studies that ”there is no single, unique personality entity that is a necessary and sufficient condition for substance use.’’ The reason for his belief is based on the fact that the same drug can affect people differently and that drugs fulfill various needs for different people. The academy’s report found that when it comes to alcohol abusers there were two types: first, the anxious, depressed neurotic who may drink to kill his psychological pain; second, the unstable antisocial personality who drinks for excitement or sensation-seeking.

The fortunate individuals who are not easily influenced or addicted are ”those people who have strong families, often with religious backgrounds and who have good social relations.” Therefore the youth who has positive relations with his peers and with adults is less likely to fall prey to drug addiction than the antiauthoritarian loner who is achieving below his potential.

Where as the potentially addictive child may well have been physically abused by parents, who are often themselves dependent on drugs or alcohol. It has been noted that the child has often been lied to, shamed and humiliated by parents who act in a highly inconsistent manner.

He says, “The mother may support something that the father strongly disapproves, or a parent may tell the child one thing today and the opposite tomorrow.” Dr. Wurmser says, this legacy of brutality ”leaves the child in a helpless rage.”  The child eventually grows up to view authority as capriciously cruel rather then something that should be respected. The child is racked by feelings of violence toward those around him and can feel completely out of control. For him, he will try to suppress the highly aggressive feelings that resulted from early trauma with the use of narcotics.

These professionals have all come to one reoccurring conclusion that addicts of all kinds have been physically abused as children. Even inconsistent parental behavior can and will lead to addictive behavior. Dr. Hatterer writes, “Every addictive adult I have treated has told either of excesses or inconsistencies or of deprivation or overindulgence in early life. There were shifts from too much to too little love, protection or discipline.” There were also frequent instances of ”marked swings from unrealistic praise to destructive hypercritical behavior.’’