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Same Difference: Substituting Addictions

Author: Justin Mckibben

Most addicts whether recovering or not can tell you that not all addicts are the same, and so of course not all pathways to addiction are the same. There of course will be some overlapping factors that influence someone in a way that contributes to them being addicted to a drug or process, but some experts believe there is no ‘addictive personality’. Genetics and neurochemistry affect the tendency toward addiction, as well as environmental and social factors. So it should be no surprise that people who are trying to recover from one addiction can tend to lean on a new one. It may be obvious to some that switching drugs for alcohol is a terrible idea for an addict, but what about other habits they may not take too seriously?

If you have ever been in any stage of recovery or treatment from an addiction you have probably pondered over the idea, or have at least heard the general concept of substituting addictions. To substitute your addiction basically means you go from smoking to eating or maybe from drinking alcohol to compulsive shopping, or even from sex to over-working. Many addicts substitute one addiction for another in an attempt to compensate for what they may feel is absent from their life, whether it be an emotional or psychological void they feed the need to fill.

It’s important to distinguish co –occurring addictions from the concept of substitute addictions. Co-occurring addiction is commonly referred to as a dual diagnosis, which basically means that a person has two or more addictions that exist simultaneously. Like a lot of us addicts develop dangerous and detrimental eating habits during active addiction, and those habits can become eating disorders quickly.

Studies and Surveys

Dr. Steven Sussman, a professor of preventive medicine and psychology at the University of Southern California, co-authored a paper where he categorized 11 “relatively common behaviors” as addictions. Among the list of these common addictive behaviors were:

  • Tobacco use
  • Alcohol use
  • Illicit drug use
  • Binge-eating
  • Gambling
  • Internet use
  • Love
  • Sex
  • Excessive exercise
  • Work
  • Shopping

Then the paper reviewed 83 studies to see which behaviors were most prevalent over a 12-month period. Each study had over 500 people, and they found that 23% of all the surveyed individuals had one or more addictions—or, co-occurring addictions. Remarkably, 47% of all US adults had at least one addiction. According to the same study there are two general types of addicts that are people who have substitute addictions.

Dosing with Dopamine

Dopamine, also known as anhedonia, plays a large role in the substitution of one addiction for another, as the same mesolimbic pathways are activated in all forms of addictions. So either addictions based on substance or behavior produces the same kind of brain chemistry that the user is really using for. After getting clean and sober, many people feel a lack of the neurotransmitter dopamine, or the inability to experience the pleasure typically felt when they have positive events or joys in life.

One solution to this, Dr. Sussman believes, is to engage in positive addictions that are likely to “jump start” the persons experience of dopamine activity on a somewhat regular basis. While some of these activities are healthier than risky sex or gambling, the method of diverting the attention could also have negative effects, and create another addiction. Things like:

  • Exercise
  • Work
  • A hobby
  • Reading
  • Gaming
  • Movies

Avoiding Additional Addictions

Knowing that addiction can come in all shapes and sizes, with different circumstances and situations, but still the same devastation can happen when a person develops an addiction, the recovering addict should be aware of the danger in over-compensating for their uncomfortable state with outside stimulations. While the drug addict obviously cannot use drugs in moderation, the true addict must be aware that drinking alcohol or behaving in many ways can get them started back down a self-destructive path.

Moderation in things like work and exercise is important, because even though these things can be productive and healthy, when the individual comes to depend on that outside source for happiness and serenity, they are only prolonging their struggles. Dual-diagnosis treatment is definitely possible for people who have more than one addiction at a time, and at the end of the day most addicts will tell you that addiction is less about a particular substance and more about the mentality and the behavior, which is why substitution of addiction is so easy to fall into.

Substituting addictions is dangerous, because any addict or alcoholic can easily develop an issue with another substance, or even a behavior, that is detrimental to them and the people closest to them. Whether the addiction is an illicit drug, drinking alcohol, gambling or even shopping it can be something that takes a serious toll on your life, but there is always a way to recover. If you or someone you love is struggling with substance abuse or addiction, please call toll-free 1-800-951-6135

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