Substituting Addictions: Things Recovering Addicts Turn to in Sobriety

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Substituting Addictions: Things Recovering Addicts Turn to in Sobriety

During the time a person spends in addiction their brain relies on the dopamine surges provided by the addictive substances.  But, this cycle can also manifest with any substance or behavior that floods the reward centers in the brain with dopamine. For instance, many recovering addicts tend to overdo it with things like caffeine, sweets, or cigarettes, to name a few.  These substitutes are not as harmful as the powerful drugs the individual abused, but substituting addictions in excess can cause health problems.

Does this mean these individuals are destined to be addicts forever?  No, it doesn’t. However, many people believe that once a person has had one addiction, they’ll probably develop another one eventually.  This “once an addict, always an addict” stigma has been around for decades, and does nothing to inspire a person to recover.

Why Does a Person Substitute One Addiction for Another?

Most addicts realize that it’s possible to go from one addiction to another in an attempt to compensate for the “lack” (anhedonia) they’re experiencing. This concept is discussed at length in most quality addiction treatment programs.  Nevertheless, a vast majority of recovering addicts develop an unhealthy emotional or physical attachment to another substance or behavior.

Why does a person substitute one addiction for another?  Scientists agree that dopamine plays a significant role in this process.  Regardless of the substance or behavior involved, the brain’s reward center is stimulated to produce high levels of dopamine which is responsible for controlling how the person responds to pleasure or pain.

In the past, experts thought that surges in dopamine directly caused euphoria.  However, scientists now believe dopamine is involved mostly in influencing a person to repeat pleasurable activities.  A burst of dopamine signals us to pay attention because something pleasurable just happened that is worth remembering and repeating,  The person begins to repeat the activity without thinking about it, and this is how addictions are formed.

Looking for a New “High

Addictive substances create a release of up to 10 times more dopamine than usual. With repeated drug abuse, the brain eventually ceases its natural production of dopamine. When this happens, the person can no longer feel pleasure without ingesting their drug of choice.

In their attempt to avoid relapse, recovering addicts look for other substances or activities that will “jump start” their ability to regularly experience pleasure.

They engage in activities such as:

  • Reading
  • Work
  • Exercise
  • Movies
  • Sex
  • Shopping
  • Eating
  • Gaming
  • Gambling

In moderation, these are great resources for avoiding relapse.  The problems begin when the individual becomes excessive or obsessive about their new “high.”  In this way, these supposedly safer substitutes become the person’s next addiction.

Signs That Someone is Substituting Addictions

Research is scarce on the topic of substitute addictions.  However, one study shows that about 25% of recovering alcoholics substituted eating desserts, smoking cigarettes, or working more. Of course, each addict is different, and many of them leave rehab and acclimate in sobriety without any serious problems.  It’s important to note that a person who is substituting addictions is not necessarily craving a physical substance; they’re merely craving the fulfillment of an emotional need.

Research shows that more than 65% of recovering addicts are having problems with anxiety, depression, impulse control, alcohol, eating disorders, or gambling.  If you have a recovering addict in your life, you may be concerned that he or she is replacing one addiction with another.

If so, here are a few signs that may indicate whether someone is substituting addictions:

  • Evasiveness, secretive behavior, isolation
  • Making excuses to justify their behavior
  • Sudden changes in weight
  • Financial issues, always needing more money
  • Spending an inordinate amount of time with an activity
  • Losing sleep to participate in the activity
  • Missing work or school, neglecting responsibilities
  • Lack of interest in personal hygiene
  • Being defensive when the subject is mentioned
  • Anxiety or stress if unable to engage in the activity

You may hear the terms cross-addiction, addiction transfer, or addiction replacement.  They all refer to the compulsive behavior that leads to substituting addictions. In recent years, the concept of cross-addiction has received increasing support from researchers.  Their goal is to raise awareness about addiction replacement and help recovering addicts maintain sobriety.

If you would like more information about substituting addictions, please contact us today.  We will be happy to answer your questions.  Also, we can tell you about our program options if you or a loved one needs treatment for addiction.


  • – Drugs and the Brain
  • – Smoking Cessation and Alcohol Abstinence
  • – What’s Worse for Your Brain: Sugar of Cocaine?
  • – How Addiction Hijacks the Brain

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