Addicted to attention and drama?

Dear Alice,

I was wondering if there is such a thing as attention addiction. I don't mean attention deficit disorder, I mean grown adults who crave attention and are addicted to getting positive or negative attention (like drama). Is there a true disorder where a supposedly mature adult can be addicted to drama and attention from other people to the point of doing weird behavioral things to get attention? And, if there’s a disorder, what are the signs and symptoms? Is a diagnosis required for the individual to attend therapy to help him/her stop?

Just Wondering...

Dear Just Wondering...,

While there’s no official diagnosis for attention addiction, there are psychological disorders characterized by continual attention-seeking. The American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5th edition, (DSM-V) suggests that people who are very dramatic, emotional, or have erratic behavior and thoughts that interfere with their day-to-day functioning might have a personality disorder. And, while a formal diagnosis isn’t necessarily required before starting therapy for these behaviors, whether or not someone is diagnosed with a personality disorder really depends on the individual’s unique situation (more on that later).

To be more specific, someone who seems to crave and create drama and attention might be experiencing symptoms of histrionic personality disorder (HPD). A diagnosis can be made when the individual presents with at least five of the following symptoms, which often begin in early adulthood:

  • They experience discomfort or distress when they’re not the center of attention.
  • Some of their interactions with others are inappropriately sexual or seductive.
  • The emotions they display are often superficial and shift quickly.
  • They value outward appearances and use their physical appearance to draw more attention to themselves.
  • Conversations or statements contain little detail and convey ideas vaguely and subjectively.
  • Emotions are displayed in a dramatic, exaggerated, or theatrical fashion.
  • They show signs of being impressionable and easily influenced by others.
  • Their perception of interpersonal relationships seem to be more intimate than others might percieve.

List adapted from the DSM-V.

Often, individuals with HPD aim to remain the center of attention — whether that attention is positive or negative. But despite the drama, many people with HPD still lead relatively successful lives. Situations in which this condition can become problematic typically involve being faced with rejection. For example, break-ups or instances of social rejection can push people with HPD into deeply depressive states. Keep in mind that personality disorders aren’t necessarily an issue of an individual’s maturity — a true personality disorder causes a person to behave in ways that significantly disrupt their daily functioning. For instance, someone with the disorder may have difficulty maintaining or interviewing for a job, or sustaining meaningful relationships with family and friends. 

All this to say, it’s key to remember that only a mental health professional can diagnose and treat personality disorders — and it can get complicated. For example, you may have noticed that some of the symptoms of HPD could also be behaviors that are part of an individual’s normal personality or influenced by their social or cultural background. In addition, the characteristics of HPD can also overlap or co-occur with other psychological or personality disorders, including narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) and borderline personality disorder (BPD). Both NPD and BPD are associated with behavioral symptoms similar to HPD and also require the attention of a professional.

The good news is that treatment is available — someone with a personality disorder (or anyone experiencing persistent emotional distress) can benefit from psychotherapy. However, it also depends a person’s willingness to participate in therapy and whether or not they can easily access the appropriate resources. Once therapy has started though, any symptoms can be assessed and a treatment plan can be developed that best suits the individual's specific situation.

If you or someone you know is displaying these troubling behaviors, it might be a good idea to talk with a health care provider who can help you figure out next steps.

Last updated Sep 23, 2016
Originally published Mar 16, 2007

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