When recovering from an addiction, it is an all-too-common phenomenon for one to replace their primary reported problematic behaviors (usually compulsatory dependence on illicit substances) with other destructive, perhaps thought to be less severe, problem behaviors. Whether only temporary or permanent, a shift towards these replacement addictions are a sign that the person is still caught up in their addictive tendencies.
An addicted person may believe that while in recovery, switching to legal substances, such as alcohol or nicotine, or taking up new behavioral patterns, termed “process addictions”, is a step in the right direction. These behaviors may include vigorous exercise, new eating habits, or even spending newly acquired free time online shopping, etc. however all of these options pose potential problems to the recovering addict.
While many who struggle with addiction will make justifications for these new behaviors, the key is in understanding the function and role that they may play in the addicted person’s life, as this is the primary way to know when a seemingly innocuous or even healthy new habit may be the cause for concern.
A good understanding of the definition of addiction is imperative in considering the effects of this phenomenon and remains useful to shed some light as to why an individual might employ the use of a substitute addiction.
The three common characteristics of addiction can be understood as:
- The disruption of the reward center of the brain that finds pleasure in everyday activities.
- Minimal distress tolerance that leads to a compulsion to use or engage in problem behavior (cravings)
- Impairment in brain structures meant to facilitate decision making, impulse control, and self-regulation, placing the individual at greater risk for relapse
When engaging in a substitute or replacement addiction, it is clear to see how one or all of these characteristics are present, indicating that true or complete recovery has yet to take place.
Common Replacement Behaviors
Substitute addictions refer to a variety of behaviors that, when repeated compulsively and in excess, activate the same reward circuits of the brain once triggered by the former drug of choice. Whether legal drugs, or others thought to be “less severe” (i.e. cannabis) or process addictions, one’s relationship with food, exercise, gambling, shopping, love, sex, and even religion can become problematic. Although the resulting problems vary, is clear that drug substitution is no less dangerous than addiction to a single main substance.
Alcohol: Although the study is still required on the subject, a review of the relevant research supports the hypothesis that the use of alcohol post-treatment leaves the individual vulnerable for a relapse of their primary drug. This understanding is founded on two principles: first, that alcohol is used by these individuals as an attempt to manage cravings, and second, that alcohol has a negative effect on the decision-making capabilities and impulse control of individuals.
Nicotine: Often times, in the same way that one’s primary drug is triggered by experiencing uncomfortable or negative emotions through repeated use of the drug to cope with the feelings, legal addictions such as cigarette smoking (or alcohol use) become equally paired with the experience and typically increase cravings or can be thought of as a “slippery slope”.
Whether smoking cigarettes does eventually lead back to the primary addiction or not, it is still a problem when it functions as a means for the individual to deal with their stress.
Excessive Behaviors: With the category of behaviors labelled as “excessive”, problems occur when, as mentioned previously, the behaviors do not increase an individual’s distress tolerance, or ability to deal with uncomfortable negative emotions, and operate only as a means of distraction.
These behaviors include:
Work or Exercise
Overeating or Controlled Eating
Sex or Love Addiction
Some of these behaviors present their own unique health concerns (i.e. increased risks of contracting sexually transmitted diseases as with sex addiction), and the ability to evaluate these behaviors openly and honestly is the beginning to understanding how they might be working against you in recovery.
Recovery is absolutely possible for you or your loved one, as is maintaining long-term sobriety long after treatment has finished. At Riviera Recovery, we believe the key is to begin your journey with some accountability, and with trusted professionals who have the knowledge to help, and to set you up for success. Contact us today to find out more.