Personality traits such as anxiety sensitivity, hopelessness, sensation seeking, and impulsivity may be predictors of use and misuse of prescription drugs in young adults, particularly undergraduate students, according to a recent study published in Addictive Behaviors.

Investigators evaluated the drug use habits of 1755 freshmen at a Canadian university (average age, 18.6 years; 68.9% women). Using surveys, students reported their use and frequency of use of prescription drugs during the current semester. Study participants were also asked to indicate whether they received prescription drugs from a clinician and the reason for using them (ie, to treat a medical condition, in combination with alcohol, to get high, or as a study aid). The relationships between 3 types of prescription drugs (sedatives/tranquilizers, opioids, and stimulants) and the above-mentioned personality traits were examined.

Of those prescription drugs, opioids were found to be used most frequently (9.9%). Of those students who used opioids, 71.88% reported receiving the medications from a clinician, and 44% of those who misused opioids reported a lack of prescription for these drugs. Opioid use was found to be significantly associated with feelings of hopelessness.

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Stimulants were the second most frequently used medications (6.8%), and 20.56% of study participants reporting stimulant use had received a prescription for these drugs. In addition, 88% of students who misused stimulants reported taking them as a study aid. Overall, stimulant use was associated with sensation seeking.

Sedatives and tranquilizers were used the least frequently among study participants (4.4%), with 56.52% of users having received a prescription for these medications, and 40% reporting taking them “not as prescribed.” Sedative/tranquilizer use was found to be associated with anxiety sensitivity.

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Impulsivity was found to predict use of stimulants and sedatives/tranquilizers, but not use of opioids. In study participants with medically sanctioned use, impulsivity was found to predict use of stimulants, and in young adults reporting misusing drugs, impulsivity was found to predict use of all 3 prescription drugs examined.

Study limitations included the inability to infer causality because of the cross-sectional nature of the model’s use and the absence of longitudinal data.

“[R]esults suggest targeting anxiety sensitivity for sedative/tranquilizer misuse, sensation seeking for stimulant misuse, and impulsivity for unconstrained prescription drug misuse,” concluded the study authors.

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Chinneck A, Thompson K, Davis-MacNevin P, Dobson K, Stewart SH. Personality and prescription drug use/misuse among first year undergraduates. Addictive Behaviors. 2018;87:122-130.