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The High Functioning Addict

The pleasure derived from success is borne of the very same brain pathways that make substance use so irresistible to some. Traits that make a good CEO are exactly those that make a ‘good’ addict.

An exaggerated pleasure seeking drive

Evolution has engineered the brains of our best leaders to be wired a little differently from the rest. Leadership traits, such as having a strong drive for success and unparalleled dedication, have been fine tuned to perfection in the encephalons of our executives, presidents and CEOs. However, this dynamic energy can be both a blessing and a curse argues David Linden, PhD, neuroscience professor at Johns Hopkins’ School of Medicine, who points out that the very traits that make a good CEO are exactly those that make a ‘good’ addict.

Following in depth analysis of current research in the field, Linden concludes that “the pleasure derived from success, and in particular from risky or novel business ventures, is borne of the very same brain pathways that make substance use so irresistible to some.” Indeed, the well worn term ‘work-a-holic’ plays off the vocabulary of addiction. One could say that the relentless and borderline obsessive pursuit of goals by society’s high achievers enables their extraordinary success, and in many ways, amounts to some level of addiction to their work. Ultimately, it all boils down to pleasure-seeking and reward, and our CEO’s and other high flyers indulge to an exceptionally heightened degree.

Evidence suggests that predisposition to addiction involves a genetic permutation which dampens the dopamine system in the brain, so that people who are genetically predisposed to addiction derive less pleasure from their substance than the average individual – therefore needing more of it to achieve the same buzz. Linden theorises that compensating for this higher than average reward criteria propels their pleasure seeking drive to an exaggerated level. It’s this drive that singles some people out for success and makes them more likely to rise to the top, but also more susceptible to fall prey to addiction.

Genetics not solely to blame

The finger can also be pointed at the reckless and ruthless high powered business culture for facilitating alcoholism. By not only presenting countless opportunities for executives — stressed out with important, high-profile decisions, high-stakes meetings and plenty of work-related travel to add to the mix- to engage in rampant alcohol use at events, conventions, dinners and conferences — but often actively encouraging them to do so. Addiction is opportunistic, and repeated exposure to such opportunities can all too easily end in problem drinking.

Faced with a predisposition to alcoholism, coupled with an environment that parades and promotes drink, perhaps surprisingly, these highly driven individuals are probably most likely to be high functioning alcoholics – i.e. able to maintain their professional and personal lives whilst exhibiting extreme symptoms of alcoholism.

High functioning alcoholism – due to its very nature – may be severely underreported

One in five alcoholics defined as high functioning

Recent research by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism has found that as many as one in five alcoholics can be defined as high functioning. That said, it’s difficult to gauge how much of this population includes CEO’s because often high functioning alcoholism – due to its very nature – could be severely underreported. An unstable illusion of control perpetuated by a lack of confrontation over their problem leads high functioning alcoholics not to seek the treatment they need. Not to mention the mentality of ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ right?

Wrong. The reality is that the system can come crashing down at any moment. And since a lot of people within an organisation will depend on the continued functioning of executives at its top level – not to mention the success vs destruction of the organisation itself –  the breakdown is important to prevent.

Treating high-functioning addicts can be complicated for a number of reasons, says Constance Scharff, PhD, an addiction researcher. One of these being that “the smarter people are, the harder to treat.” Higher level individuals always have to be on guard, and tend to be less trusting. That said, successful treatment is certainly possible, with fully committed engagement on the individual’s part – and through putting that enormous drive to good, constructive use.

One treatment model that doesn’t generally work for this clientele, however, is the 12 – step program, the main principles of which centre around the state of powerlessness, or giving up to a higher power. This, unsurprisingly, does not sit well with high powered executives at the top of their careers. Supporting the individual needs of a business person is what makes treatment become a viable option to them.

City Addictions, November 19, 2016


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