Personality Traits and Substance Abuse
Which Personality Traits May Be Especially Vulnerable to Substance Abuse?
By Natural High Staff
Sometimes it’s easy to see why someone falls into substance use issues. You look at their life full of hardship or trauma and match that with their tumultuous upbringing and dysfunctional family and think to yourself, “Hey — no wonder.”
But with some people, it doesn’t quite add up. Did something happen that we aren’t aware of? Do they have a genetic predisposition?
Well, there’s been some fascinating research revealed in recent years that sheds light on what makes one person more vulnerable to substance use issues than others, and it has to do with their personality.
Dr. Patricia Conrod from Quebec, Canada, has led a research team and has demonstrated that personality factors can be highly predictive of who develops problems with alcohol and substance misuse.
There are four personality types, particularly, that seem to have a higher correlation with struggles, and there’s a personality profile that can be administered to students to help them better understand themselves. Below are the four personality types that have a uniquely higher risk factor:
An impulsive person acts with their gut on the spur of the moment without thinking much about the consequences of their actions. It might remind you of the kid who has behavior issues in class — the one who can’t help but cracking the funny joke or getting too physical with other kids on the playground.
- Sensation Seeking
A sensation seeker craves excitement and often acts without thinking clearly about the consequences. You might be reminded of the kid who’s a risk-taker outside of school in the activities they pursue — the one who shows videos of herself skateboarding down a hill without a helmet.
- Anxiety Sensitivity
The assessment describes someone with this type of personality as a person who has stressful physical sensations and worries about anxious feelings.
- Negative Thinking
A person who often feels sad, guilty, and irritable is susceptible to negative thinking. This is often a more difficult personality to observe since thinking happens underneath the surface. But, adults can usually detect these kinds of thoughts based on their facial expressions or comments they overhear.
What does this mean for parents?
First, it’s helpful to consider who the kids are in our lives and how best to care for them. Also, it speaks to the importance of providing opportunities for kids to grow in self-awareness. Everyone deserves an opportunity to get to know themselves, and it’s especially helpful when adults are open and honest about themselves and their own lives, first.
Additionally, parents can commit to engaging in honest discussions with their kids about their personality tendencies, acting as neutral mirrors to help them understand themselves. Knowledge, in many ways, leads not only to power but also self-awareness as a foundation for healthy choices.
Personality Risk Factor #1: Impulsivity
Matthew was always the class clown. Even in his early elementary years, he developed a reputation for frequently interrupting class to make a joke, using physical humor to make his peers laugh, and on the playground, he was notorious for breaking the rules of whatever game they were playing.
When he got to middle school, nothing changed. In fact, he seemed to get more brazen in his interjections, using inappropriate words to get a big reaction. When he got to high school, not only was he on a first-name basis with the assistant principal and behind in most of his classes, but he was also one of the first kids of his year to drink alcohol and vape at parties.
The kids and the parents in the community weren’t surprised. His misbehavior and lack of self-control had been clear since first grade. Many parents and teachers made side comments about how much Matthew would struggle to transition into becoming a responsible adult.
It’s difficult to manage life successfully when you lack self-control, and the kids who struggle the most with behavior and discipline are often the ones who have academic struggles as well.
Without knowing the source of impulsivity in each kid — whether it’s an intense home environment, genetic predisposition such as Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), immaturity, or poor role modeling — the results have similar patterns. It doesn’t go well for them later in life, and they might make some truly harmful mistakes along the way.
Later on, fueled by a strong desire to fit in and find acceptance from their peers, with less adult supervision and more freedom, kids who struggle with impulsivity can often be the first ones to experiment with harmful substances.
Impulsivity looks different in each kid. For instance:
- Some kids do outrageous things to get attention from their peers.
- Others can’t help themselves and break clear, simple rules.
- Some have a hard time keeping their hands to themselves or saying things that are rude or insulting.
- Others might struggle with interrupting their teacher or their friends. Often, they have a hard time being self or socially aware.
So what can we do, especially with kids who have a noticeable bias to impulsivity? Consider being more intentional with them to cultivate a skill of thoughtfulness and self-reflection. Here’s how that might look: By definition, impulsive behavior is thoughtless action. It’s acting before thinking. The skill, then, to cultivate is to learn how to think before acting. The only way to help a kid get there is to act as their narrator. So here’s what we suggest you might try:
- After they’ve acted out, take some time to walk them through the sequence of events. With no shame, intensity, or accusation, ask them to talk through what happened, what they did, and process the reaction to their behavior.
- Then, invite them to walk through the same scenario again, but this time with a ‘What I Wish I Did’ lens. What could they have done differently? At what point did they realize they had gone too far? What might they do differently next time they’re in a similar situation?
It takes a while for any kid to develop self-awareness and wisdom. For some, their executive functioning might have more delays or impediments than others. But, it’s important to be mindful of each kid’s developmental needs, and thoughtful to engage them in the skills everyone needs to handle the complexities of life.
Personality Risk Factor #2: Sensation Seeking
Throughout history, there has been a particular subset of people who are more predisposed to taking extraordinary risks with their safety and wellbeing. They’re called middle school kids.
With little regard for their health or long-term consequences, they can be found jumping off buildings or running through traffic in every neighborhood around the world. There’s often an implied correlation between kids who are out and about engaging in reckless activities and substance use.
Beyond mere rhetoric, researchers have come to the same conclusion:
“Individuals with higher levels of thrill and adventure seeking and disinhibition have been identified by numerous studies to be more likely to initiate substance use, as well as have higher levels of use for both specific substances and combined measures of substance use.”
The question, then, is about protection and intervention. How do we protect kids who haven’t yet developed the ability to use their executive reasoning? The research, unfortunately, isn’t overly optimistic:
“Most researchers conceptualize sensation seeking as a stable trait which is unlikely to be reduced via intervention…”
To translate — we probably can’t stop them from thrill-seeking. We might, however, be able to influence how they express themselves. What does that look like?
- Give them permission to engage in more risky activities with appropriate safety gear. Let them “send it” on their mountain bikes, with the best helmet and pads money can buy. Go with them and promise to take a video.
- Keep track of their whereabouts. Use technology tools like Apple’s Find My app or the Circle 360 app to know where they are and have regular check-in intervals.
- Limit their freedom. Adolescents want and need freedom. But they haven’t yet balanced that desire for freedom with the ability to make wise choices. So, although it can be incredibly irritating to them, and taxing on you to listen to their complaints, limit their freedom.
- Give them a clear curfew and clear consequences.
- Give them a leash. Make it clear where and how far they’re allowed to venture off.
- Keep tabs on who their friends are, and if they’re on social media, follow them. You might catch more than a few glimpses of what they’re up to on their Instagram Stories.
- And, speaking of social media, limit their ability to be inspired by or post reckless behavior. YouTube, especially, has an endless amount of footage of sensation-seeking activity that’s lauded by teens.
There’s a wise old saying about teenagers: “Hang on tight to make sure they survive until adulthood.” There’s a lot of truth to that sentiment.
Personality Risk Factor #3:
Have you ever sat next to an anxious flyer in an airplane? Every jolt, bump, or noise can trigger a physical reaction of fear and anxiety in them. Some people with a fear of flying attribute it to a specific incident, while others can’t explain where the fear comes from, it’s just ever-present.
For people who rarely feel anxiety or fear, it’s difficult to understand someone who’s plagued by it. But for people with high sensitivity to anxiety, they can hardly imagine a life that’s carefree or calm.
Psychologists over thirty years ago classified a type of person who is especially prone to anxiety as having Anxiety Sensitivity. For this person, not only do they experience anxiety and fear more often than most, but they also suffer from the idea of anxiety and anxious feelings. They feel anxious about getting anxious. It could be anxiety about being picked on, or about being enclosed in tight spaces.
Here’s a sobering reality: anxiety sensitivity has been linked to alcohol abuse later in life. As someone experiments with drinking, they recognize a byproduct of alcohol’s effects — a decrease in the sensations of anxiety. Enjoying and appreciating the relief, those with high anxiety sensitivity can easily slip into self-medicating by drinking, in order to find reprieve from fear.
It makes sense, and through an empathetic lens, it’s easy to see the relief that someone can find through the escape. But it’s a major problem since we know that frequent alcohol use and abuse will lead to psychological, relational, and physical harm.
What can parents do to support (and appropriately intervene) kids who are high on the anxiety sensitivity scale?
- Be mindful of the risk factors and thoughtfully educate kid(s) on the connection between anxiety sensitivity and alcohol misuse. Intervention studies have shown that students who are more aware of their risk factors make wiser choices.
- Teach them effective ways to manage their own anxiety and fear. Proven practices like mindful breathing, extra intentionality in a holistic, healthy lifestyle, including proper sleep, nutrition, and exercise, as well as coping mechanisms when in a state of panic, can all go far to help kids gain a sense of control.
- Avoid any sense of shame around anxiety or fear. They can’t just toughen up, intellectually override their sense of impending doom, or stop thinking about whatever they’re feeling anxious about. Rather, we can come alongside them in a compassionate, patient way, allowing them the chance to feel safe with us, to share their experience, and to find a sense of grounding through a healthy bond.
It’s difficult to be an adolescent. Much more difficult if you’re dealing with an anxiety issue. But we can be intentional to guide students through those years and help them grow in self-awareness and healthy coping strategies for self-management. Those are the foundations for a thriving life in the future.
Personality Risk Factor #4: Negative Thinking
Negative thinking happens to everyone — regardless of personality or disposition. We live in a critical society where even the slightest awkward social interaction can cause us to feel bad about ourselves. Whether it’s in a work meeting, a conversation with an acquaintance, or over the dinner table, reflecting on how we might’ve been misunderstood, overreacted, or said the wrong thing at the wrong time is a familiar experience.
Kids especially are prone to negative thinking. As they enter adolescence, they become hypersensitive to acceptance, rejection, and criticism. It’s easy for them to beat themselves up for saying, wearing, or laughing at the wrong thing.
But, for some kids, negative thinking isn’t something that happens occasionally, it transitions into something psychologists have classified as Repetitive Negative Thinking (RNT).
It’s when negative thoughts turn into a pattern, and you ruminate constantly over your interactions with others. As researchers have discovered, kids who struggle with RNT are more prone to turn to unhealthy or harmful ways to find relief.
In fact, 20 out of 27 official studies showed a link between RNT and problematic drinking. What can adults do to help kids through negative thinking, so they avoid making harmful choices that ruin their lives?
It starts with being intentional to have conversations with them about their mental activity.
- The best thing we can do is to provide them a frequent, safe space to process their thoughts and feelings. We can guide them through frequent self-examination through facilitated reflection, both in writing and in conversation with peers and adults.
- People who learn to examine their thinking patterns find they are more aware of negative thoughts in real-time, and can adjust how they respond to them. They can talk themselves through the choices they have in front of them.
- Guided reflection can help them process memories or past events or experiences that continue to influence their perspective. They can recall those events, express the thoughts and feelings now that they wish they had the capacity or safety to and find relief and release in the negative thoughts.
When someone doesn’t become more self-aware, they will often make unconscious decisions to find relief from discomfort. So, they need to know there are other, healthier alternatives. There are effective solutions to negative thinking that takes them down a path of real freedom, rather than numbing and avoidance. It requires intentional, deliberate effort and intervention.