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Risk Taking Behavior and its Connection to Addiction

Are you a risk taker? Did you know that it is not just a behavior? It is a personality dimension (Zuckerman M, 2004). The characteristic of risk taking or novelty seeking behavior is one personality factor that is found in higher frequency in persons who become addicted to drugs and alcohol. How does risk taking influence the development of drug and alcohol addiction?

Research on novelty seeking behavior and alcohol and drug use includes more studies on men than women. Men are more likely to have the personality dimension of impulsive sensation seeking, but the dimension is not limited to men.

It starts early: The behavior of boys in kindergarten predicts the early onset of substance use. The specific personality traits associated with adolescent substance use include high novelty seeking and low harm avoidance in kindergarten (Masse LC et al, 1997).

This association of personality traits has also been seen in older children. If high novelty seeking and low harm avoidance are found in 11 year olds, the boys had a 20-fold increase in the risk of alcohol abuse by age 27 (Cloniger CR et al, 1988).

Risk taking is not the main point of sensation seeking behavior; it is merely the price such people pay for certain kinds of activities that satisfy their need for novelty, change, and excitement (Zuckerman M, 2004). It doesn’t always lead to drug and alcohol use; some risk-takers become rock climbers, scuba divers, or sky divers.

But for some people, especially young boys, risk taking can be associated with hyperactivity, fighting, and oppositional behavior (Dobkin PL et al, 1995). Risk taking is also associated with likability and popularity among peers, if not among parents and teachers. One risk that young persons take is early cigarette smoking. If an adolescent starts smoking tobacco at 11 years old or younger, early use of alcohol and drugs often follows (DuRant RH et al, 1999). These drug use behaviors tend to be self reinforcing.

Risk taking can lead to alcohol and drug use and these behaviors make more risk taking more likely (eg. riding with a drunk driver, unprotected sex, fighting). Early cigarette smoking may not be so much a “gateway” to alcohol and drug use, but rather may be a symptom of more fundamental underlying personality features (Hann EX et al, 2001).

Sensation seeking in human beings is inherited, with genetics accounting for 30 to 50 percent of the personality trait (Zuckerman M, 2000). Novelty seeking has been linked to a gene, the dopamine receptor 4 (DRD4) gene, associated with the neurotransmitter dopamine.

This chemical is a key component of the mesolimbic “pleasure center” where addictive drugs work. A long form of DRD4 is found in a higher proportion of individuals demonstrating novelty seeking behavior. It is also found in high numbers among persons with opiate addiction (Zuckerman M, 2000).

Low levels of the chemical monoamine oxidase (MAO) are also associated with sensation seeking. MAO regulates neurotransmitters like dopamine. Levels of MAO are lower in men than women and are lower in young persons than older ones. This could explain why novelty seeking is more of a problem for adolescent boys (Zuckerman M, 2000).

Novelty seeking behavior in childhood does not explain all alcohol and drug use. Children affected by childhood physical and sexual abuse, those with depression or bipolar disorder, those with attention deficit or hyperactivity disorder (ADD/ADHD) are also likely to use substances early in life (Belcher HME et al, 1998).

But for those persons whose alcohol and drug use meet a need for risk taking, acknowledgment of this association will necessitate finding a new outlet for risk taking and novelty seeking behavior.

Do you need to find a new job or a new hobby? Where do you want to go and what do you want to do? If risk taking is a part of who you are, you will need to find a new way of meeting this need. A part of your recovery will require a new type of inventory: what risks did I take today? Were they good risks or bad ones?

By Thomas C. Martin, MD, FASAM

This article first appeared in Volume 7, Issue 2 of the Island Sun Newsletter-a publication of Crossroads Centre at Antigua-and is reprinted with permission.

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