Lately I have been thinking about what prompts reckless behavior. We all know that in the past 4 months we have been cautioned to act with reserve, to stay put, to social distance and to wear masks.

However, life is messy, and events have occurred which have served as a catalyst for large protests and just the plain burden of staying inside and not really believing that Covid 19 can happen to me has served as a catalyst for reckless or risky behaviors.

The funny thing is all life is risky. It’s just how much risk we are willing to take that might make the difference.

What is recklessness? Recklessness is defined as a lack of regard for the danger or consequences of one’s actions. Reckless people do not think in terms of long-term consequences; rather they think in terms of the immediacy of the moment and short-term rewards. With Substance use and process disorders we see that reckless behavior usually gets them into a lot of trouble they:

  • Violate their value stances
  • Engage in risky behaviors
  • Have short term thinking
  • Use mind-altering substances
  • Eat unhealthy food in the short term
  • Cheat on their romantic partner
  • Spends all the money they have on short term rewards
  • They gamble in the hopes of striking it big
  • The lie, cheat steal or otherwise engage in risky behavior

Reckless folks often engage in naive optimism. They don’t think anything will go wrong and don’t understand that there are consequences to every action and way of thinking. While we do not know for sure we have for example seen an uptick by the thousands in Covid 19 after folks have engaged with one another without social distancing, wearing masks, etc. The “this can’t happen to me syndrome” has spurred what many may call reckless behaviors.

On the other hand, a cautious person may lead a life of pessimism and only see the cup as half empty instead of half full. Always looking over their shoulder seeing specks of dirt in the ground a supposed to stars in the sky.

How Does This Impact Addiction?

So, what does this have to do with addiction?  Maria Szalavitz writes in her book The Addictive Personality Isn’t What you Think It is, rather than being seen as anti-social or defective or selfish, the addictive personality is multifaceted and can contain both elements of recklessness and caution.

She argues that “fundamentally the idea of a general addictive personality is a myth…  a character. For when we were born some our kind and caring, others are selfless, some are shy and some are bold , some are honest some are not.” For example, 18% of folks who self -identify as addicts are characterized by personality disorders (lying, cheating, stealing, lack of conscience, manipulative behavior) and that still means 82% do not fit this portrait.

What Szalavitz argues is it is the outliers that are a risk for addiction. The Children who are impulsive, eager to try new thing, the ones with extreme personalities, some which are associated with talents, not deficits. Giftedness and high IQ are often linked with higher rates of illegal drug use, as well as those who appear antisocial and callous.

Longitudinal studies looking at addiction have found three major pathways that involve temperamental traits which can be seen in early infancy. The first common in males involves impulsivity and boldness. The second is seen more in women and involves being sad, inhibited or anxious. These temperaments can lead to a self-medicating  path where drugs are used to cope with painful feelings.

Being bold and adventurous and being sad and cautions are not mutually exclusive. The third path is having both if these traits engaging in risky behaviors then isolating and being fear driven compulsive and stick in rigid patterns . All if these personality types have a difficult time with self-regulation and impulse controls.

Szalavitz does a great job in exploring  and explaining how brain are works, in particular the prefrontal cortex, how it interacts with the nucleus accubens (NAC ) the brains reward center the orbitofrontal cortex, as well as the insulus which processes emotions like lust and disgust and monitors internal states like hunger and thirst as well as the anterior cingulate that seems to be important for obsessive behaviors. Finally, she cites research about the amygdala which is involved in emotions.

She argues that ultimately addiction results as an alteration in the balance between brain networks. The bottom line she suggests is the same regions of the brain which give us intense curiosity, obsessive focus, the ability to learn, quickly memorize also make us vulnerable to developing bad habits and then rapidly getting locked into them.

Given that the same parts of the brain can lead us ion different pathways, it is important to:

  1. Understand there is a delicate balance between reckless ness and caution. The relationship is dynamic and its best to maintain a balance
  2. Stay in the moment though do contemplate the efficacy of your choice. What is good about your choice today, and in the long run. What’s not so good about your choice in the long run? What are potential consequences
  3. Take a close look at your extreme behaviors – and those of others . What are the pitfalls of being too cautious > Does that keep you afraid and isolated? What are the pitfalls of being too reckless? Learning what not to do is almost more important than learning what not to do. For example, staying out using mind altering substances and ending up in someone’s bedroom is not a great idea. Likewise observe folks who are too cautious may immobilize one from taking any action.
  4. There are always many variations in one’s personality. Striking a balance between reckless and caution is a skill that all of us might benefit from.

Let me know how you, your family, friends, and clients walk the tightrope between recklessness and caution.