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Substitute Addictions: I Used to be Addicted to Drugs; Now I Am Addicted to Something Else

Overcoming addiction is never an easy process. This is illustrated very clearly by the prevalence of “substitute” addictions among those in recovery. You may have overcome your dependence on a substance, such as cocaine or alcohol, but then find yourself running obsessively, overeating regularly or even switching to another substance. In many cases, the substitute addiction won’t be as harmful as the original one, but the psychological root causes of this phenomenon reveal that it is still an issue you should at very least be fully aware of.

What Is a Substitute Addiction?

A substitute addiction is something recovering addicts use to manage the difficulty of abstaining from their previous substance or activity of addiction. They can take numerous forms; some users may take up smoking, some might begin to shop or even become sex or relationship addicts, but the core point is that it’s something that “fills the role” the previous addiction used to play. Of course, new activities and distracting activities are useful because they take the focus off the challenging processes of withdrawal and recovery, but when engaged in to excess, they can be every bit as damaging as the original addiction.

Why Do Addicts Substitute Addictions?

The reason substitute addictions are so common is because addiction is actually a psychological issue rather than merely a physical dependence on a particular substance or activity. It could develop for many reasons, but for illustrative purposes, imagine somebody who becomes an alcoholic as a misguided means of coping with the stress of his job. Alcohol itself becomes a focus of the addictive behavior, but in reality the behavior is caused by his inability to deal with stress in a healthy way.

When physical, social or emotions problems eventually emerge as a result of his excessive drinking, he realizes that he can’t continue to drink. In order to get better, the individual needs to recognize the underlying causes of his stress and find healthier ways to deal with it. Overcoming this stress may not be easy, and the pattern of stress leading to substance consumption is already firmly established. Rather than dealing with the difficulties and their causes (which may involve having to find a new job, re-train for a new career or stand up to a demanding boss, for example), the addictive cycle is merely re-started with another substance. He might start smoking; using cigarettes in exactly the same way as he did alcohol. The problem with alcohol may have been solved, but the issue really continues in another fashion. This same pattern can occur with numerous different substances or activities, even healthy ones like running.

 What to Do About It

If you believe you’ve developed a substitute addiction, the most important advice is to recognize it as one. Some argue that a less harmful substitute addiction can be a stepping stone to true recovery. This is understandable, because if you are running, for example, this is obviously a positive thing from an objective perspective. However, if this continues and grows to the same intensity as the original addiction, then you have a problem regardless of what the substitute or activity is. This is why recognizing the issue is vital, because then you can work to stop it if it’s getting out of hand.

The best practice is to avoid substituting addictions altogether. Substitute addictions (particularly seemingly “healthy” ones) are like Trojan horses where your original problems continue to fester and grow. No matter what the underlying issue, you have to confront it head-on rather than hiding behind a new dependency. Ultimately, the best advice is to seek the help of a counselor or addiction specialist, or – if you’ve already been through treatment for your original addiction – to apply the principles you learned there to the new problem. It’s another battle to fight, but if you address the psychological root causes sufficiently, you’ll only have to deal with it once.

Posted on September 28th, 2014
Posted in Other Addictions

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