What is ego depletion and how does it make people more prone to addiction

The ego has been a topic of fascination within the psychology community for centuries.

All this is especially true when attempting to understand the origins of addiction and other forms of substance abuse.

All this dates back to when Sigmund Freud developed his phenomenal personality theories when he first proposed that every human possesses three main personality types:

  • The ID
  • EGO
  • Superego

The role of the ego in addiction

Broadly, the role that the ego plays in addicted behaviors is a byproduct of how the other parts of our personality interact with each other at any given moment.

The ID

For instance, The ID, which represents the unorganized, primitive part of human personality, gets referred to as the pleasure principle and controls our basic instincts.

Primitive strategies

The ID, sometimes known as biological drives or instinctual drives, constantly seeks out pleasure and reward.

Our instinctual drives have no regard for what is right or wrong; the ID wants what it wants and has to have its needs met.

All this is similar to a newborn crying for its mother milk; the vulnerable baby cries out for immediate gratification in a bid to satisfy its urges and cravings.

A young child at this stage of life has no other goal but to seek comfort and food.

Essentially, the ID is the primitive part of the personality present at birth, while the ego and superego get developed through critical sub-stages.

Ego and Superego

The ego is the organized part of the personality structure and includes:

  • Intellect and cognition
  • Perception
  • Executive functions
  • Defensiveness

Power of logic

The ego gets referred to as the reality principle and gets centred around conscious awareness.

However, some of the ego’s functions and behavior are unconscious.

The ego comprises of several psychic functions, all of which include:

  • Tolerance
  • Judgement
  • Reality testing
  • Control
  • Intellectual functioning and memory
  • Defense

The Superego

The superego is referred to as the morality principle and is concerned with reflecting social standards learned through the environment – such as parents, teachers and the community.

Ego and substance abuse

When it comes to drug abuse or any other substance abuse, the ego often plays a dangerous role.

Research suggests that certain personality disorders such as narcissistic personality disorder are present in some people with addiction.


The basis of narcissism gets centered around the ego, and addiction to drugs and alcohol often results in a person exhibiting egotistical personality traits.

From this, it may seem that the ego and addiction go hand in hand (as well as other factors such as genetics, health, family history and upbringing).

Making decisions and ego depletion

Ego depletion may also play a role in why addicts take up an addiction, such as drug addiction and substance abuse.

What is ego depletion?

When ego depletion occurs, it is often because an addict has used up all their available self-control and willpower on one task – meaning that their ability to regulate self-control such as cravings for alcohol and drugs is limited.

Theorists suggest that willpower is like a muscle – the more you exercise it, the more strengthened or weakened it becomes.

For instance, if a person swims many lengths – they are likely to be too exhausted to run a marathon afterwards.


Other evidence suggests that having reasonable self – control contributes to the cultivation of better relationships and career success.

Those with a low tolerance for self-control usually experience a poor academic performance, a lack of social status and are more prone to addiction.


Studies have shown that ego depletion and the ability to control one’s impulses has a lot to do with motivation levels.

If a person feels motivated to do well, they are more likely to feel less drained, and therefore, less likely to make bad decisions (such as taking up an addiction or drug abuse).

The path of motivation

In one particular study on willpower, participants got told that the task they were taking part in was to support a new therapy for people who have Alzheimer’s.

The results showed that most people in the study told about the therapy outperformed those in the control group.  All this suggests that motivation and a willingness to do good plays an integral part in ego depletion.

Risk factors

Data shows that people at risk of ego depletion are those that may be experiencing:

  • A change in hormones (usually around the time of menstruation for women)
  • Varying heart rate levels – research shows that when people’s heart rates vary, they are more prone to ego depletion compared to those with normal heart health
  • A lack of choice – if someone gets pushed into doing something, they are more likely to experience fatigue
  • Low blood sugar levels – when someone has low blood sugar – they are more likely to give in to their cravings
  • Mental distress – when someone has an emotional problem, or they feel emotionally distressed in any way, they are at risk of developing ego depletion
  • Cognitive dissonance – acting or behaving in ways that go against our values and beliefs can decrease our ability for self-control

Substance use

If we were to reflect on Freud’s personality theory – we get a clearer insight into addiction and how addiction and substance abuse manifests.

For instance, if an addict is suffering from ego depletion, their resistance to the urges from the ID (the unorganized personality part) gets weakened. Essentially, the ego is too tired to resolve the drug and alcohol cravings successfully.

The ego and superego strategies usually get channeled towards logical and socially acceptable outcomes. Still, when the ego is tired, people are more likely to give in to addiction and thus, relapse occurs.

Risky behaviors

Research shows that people who cannot regulate their emotions are at risk of developing dangerous habits and behaviors, including addiction such as excessive drug-taking and alcohol consumption.

When a person demonstrates self-control in other areas of their life – it can lead to depletion and fatigue, resulting in an inability to resist temptation or saying no to drugs and alcohol.

All their reserve got taken in other areas, and therefore, their willpower is low, leaving them vulnerable to addiction.

Other implications

Data suggests that people experiencing ego depletion and addicted behaviors are susceptible to developing issues in other areas of their life, including:

  • Bad decision making
  • An inability to stick to positive health choices such as dieting and exercise
  • An inability to demonstrate empathy or guilt – ego depleted people experience a limited sense of guilt and therefore demonstrate lower levels of prosocial behaviors and tend to experience less positive social interactions


Typical recovery solutions for ego depletion get centered around preventative measures and strategies. All these treatment measures may feel intuitive to some, but people do not always follow these measures no matter how obvious they are.

Addiction recovery

Researchers suggest the following strategies help prevent ego depletion and addiction from occurring:

  • Practicing stress management – To stay psychologically healthy, everyone must follow their unique path and strategy. Although mental health experts suggest that people practice stress management techniques such as deep breathing, meditation and mindfulness to alleviate stress.
  • Sticking to your boundaries – When it comes to recovery from addiction or any other health problem – people must adhere to their core values and use daily positive affirmations that feel authentic to them. These essential strategies help deal with ego fatigue as they help ground a persons’ thoughts and emotions.
  • Change of perspective – one study showed that people who viewed themselves as burnt out and tired were more prone to ego depletion. However, those who took a moment to reflect on their situation rather than allowing the fatigue to control them got better positioned to reverse the negative impact of ego depletion and were better at making decisions.
  • Better sleep patterns – addiction recovery gets centered around a shift in lifestyle and other essential treatments. Sleep is a big reset to recovery, allowing the mind and body to heal. However, a lack of sleep impacts our self-control levels, making an addict more susceptible to addiction and substance abuse.

Treatment center

There are plenty of addiction recovery options for those suffering from ego depletion and addiction, some of which occur at a treatment center.

All these options may seem daunting to an addict at first, but they are incredibly successful in helping people address both the root cause of addiction and the addiction itself.

Being an addict doesn’t have to be a way of life – with the proper treatment and trust, it is possible to control your addiction and work towards long-term addiction recovery.

Get in touch with an addiction specialist at our treatment center today to discuss your options.

David Scourfield

David Scourfield is a Camino Recovery team member since 2017, focused on facilitating communication with Clinical and other professionals to ensure a comprehensive understanding of Camino's program.

Combining his marketing skills and lived experiences, he joined Camino in 2017, contributing to external publications and the Camino website. With a strong belief in solidarity during the recovery process, David helps clients build support networks by connecting them with others in recovery.

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