Content reviewed by Gillian Bieler, LCSW, CSAT, Clinical Director at ARC

Replacing one addiction with another, whether it’s based around a substance or a behavior, is a risk that is important to manage throughout your recovery process. Knowing when to get help can spare you from another round of treatment and having to restart your journey toward living a healthy and fulfilling life.

What does it mean to “replace” an addiction?

Replacement addiction, cross-addiction, substitute addiction; and addiction transfer are all terms to describe the same phenomenon: the development of a new addiction after being treated for a substance use disorder (SUD). Even after going to treatment and entering the recovery stage, it is possible to become addicted to a different substance than what you received treatment for.

For instance, if you’re in recovery from cocaine addiction, you might seek out ADHD medication to get a similar buzz. After getting treatment for heroin addiction, you might start misusing alcohol to get a numbing and calming effect. On the other hand, you may develop an addiction to something you wouldn’t expect, like food.

Suddenly, you might catch yourself eating more sweets or thinking about food much more than you ever did. Your whole day might become structured around when your next meal is. Maybe food doesn’t do it for you, but sex, extreme sports; or gambling does. Experiencing an addiction based on these sorts of activities is known as developing a process or behavioral addiction.

Are behavioral addictions similar to SUDs?

Behavioral addictions can refer to a variety of excessive behaviors like eating disorders, gambling, sex and love addiction, pathological working, shopping, exercise, media use and compulsive stealing. These disorders are different from an SUD; in that there is no chemical dependency. The person is not addicted to a substance, but rather the behavior or the feeling derived from performing the behavior. Nevertheless, both conditions do share some of the same core features.

For example, an eating disorder can cause severe health problems. A gambling or shopping addiction can lead a person to waste their savings and suffer financially. You will know that you are entering hot waters when these behaviors feel obligatory. In other words, you continue engaging in the behavior despite its negative consequences on your mental and physical health. Instead of eating because you are hungry or want a little snack, for instance, you eat because you feel compelled to.

Another example comes from a study published in the International Journal of Preventive Medicine. The researchers explain that there are similarities between the diagnostic symptoms of both types of addiction. Patients with behavioral addictions have reported symptoms like “craving, excessive behavior, psychological and physical withdrawal symptoms, loss of control, development of tolerance (increased behavior range) and inducing and perceiving expected psychotropic effects.”

Similar to an SUD, the compulsion causes functional impairment at work, in relationships; and in other social situations.

What causes a behavioral addition to develop?

While there is limited empirical evidence about what causes the development of behavioral addiction, it is thought that one potential answer is that an individual is seeking similar pleasurable experiences to make up for what they are no longer receiving from drugs or alcohol. The person may also be looking to satisfy an underlying emotional or psychological need. Unlike co-occurring disorders, behavioral addictions develop sequentially instead of in tandem with an SUD.

Biologically, this form of addiction may occur in early recovery due to lower levels of dopamine in the brain. When you use a lot of drugs or alcohol over a period of time, your brain is flooded with abnormal amounts of dopamine, a neurotransmitter involved in pleasure. Once you quit and go through detox, your body has to work extra hard and spend some time getting your dopamine levels back to normal. During this period, you may experience post-acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS). According to Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, PAWS can be accompanied by symptoms like depression and anxiety that can last for weeks to months.

Know when it’s time to get help.

If you’ve just gotten out of treatment and are in the early stages of your recovery, it’s important to be aware of the risk of relapse. You might be struggling to manage cravings or thoughts about the substance you received treatment for. Maybe you’re eyeballing some other substance thinking it’s not as bad as what you took before. You could be going through PAWS without realizing it, and, in your attempts to ease the discomfort, you adopt a different dopamine-rewarding behavior.

You will know that it’s time to call a treatment center that specializes in addiction when you:

  • Lose sleep to engage in the activity.
  • Experience disruptions at your workplace.
  • Have obsessive thoughts about the activity.
  • Develop relationship issues with family and friends.
  • Start neglecting your hygiene and self-care regiments.
  • Experience severe psychological distress when you can’t engage.

Behavioral addictions come in a variety of unsuspecting forms. They are very similar to substance use disorders in that the behavior continues to be carried out, despite the obvious negative consequences of doing so. At Authentic Recovery Center, we want to help you cultivate stability and confidence as you navigate the world after treatment. Call today to learn how we can help you at (866) 786-1376.