Substitute Addictions: What You Should Know

It's not uncommon for someone in recovery to replace drug or alcohol use with another habit, whether it's shopping, eating, taking up cigarettes, or smoking marijuana. This is known as a substitute addiction, and it can lead to unhealthy behaviors that put your recovery at risk.

Addicted for Life?

It's commonly believed that someone with one addiction is at a higher risk of becoming addicted to another substance or behavior. While this may be true for some, it's not always the case. A recent study found that only 20 percent of participants in recovery had developed a substitute addiction after three years of sobriety.

Still, anyone who has been treated for a substance use disorder understands the importance of remaining ever vigilant and making good choices when it comes to using substances and engaging in behaviors with addictive potential.

The Role of Dopamine in Substitute Addictions

Dopamine plays a major role in the development of substitute addictions. People in recovery often have trouble feeling pleasure due to changes in the way the brain produces dopamine. Engaging in pleasurable activities, whether they're healthy or not, can produce a dopamine rush that may lead to repeating the behavior in order to get the same effects.

Certain addictive behaviors and substances may also be a source of comfort or stress relief, but over time, repeatedly engaging in a behavior can become an addiction that causes other problems in your life.

Common Substitute Addictions

Dr. Steven Sussman, professor of preventive medicine and psychology at the University of Southern California, identified eleven common addictive behaviors in a 2011 study. Any one of them could potentially fill the void left behind after kicking a drug or alcohol addiction:

  • Tobacco use
  • Alcohol use
  • Illegal drug use
  • Love
  • Binge eating
  • Gambling
  • Internet use
  • Sex
  • Exercise
  • Work
  • Shopping

Binge eating and tobacco use are two of the most common substitute addictions, according to Sussman.

How to Stave off a Substitute Addiction

Mindfulness is your best defense against developing a substitute addiction. Avoid engaging in behaviors that you know are harmful or addictive. Instead, enjoy healthy activities that keep your mind off drugs or alcohol.

But even if a behavior is healthy, an addiction to it is not. Sure, running four miles a day is good for your mind and body, but if you run compulsively and find that you're unable to skip a daily run even though you have an injury or you're not feeling well, the behavior has become a problem.

Strive to maintain some perspective in all you do, and make healthy lifestyle choices. Balance work and relaxation, eat healthy food, reduce your stress, exercise most days of the week and get plenty of quality sleep. Avoid over-scheduling yourself or working too many hours at a time.

Staying mindful of your thoughts and attitudes and striking a healthy life balance is the best way to prevent a seemingly benign behavior—or an overtly harmful one—from becoming a substitute addiction.

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