It’s not uncommon for someone in recovery to replace a substance addiction with another compulsive, unhealthy behavior such as binge eating, shopping or cigarette smoking. These behaviors are known as substitute addictions, and they can quickly put your recovery at risk.
Are Substitute Addictions the Norm?
A common belief is that having one addiction puts you at a higher risk of developing other addictions involving a substance or behavior, but a recent study found that just 20 percent of subjects in recovery had developed another addiction after 36 months of sobriety.1
Still, mindfulness in recovery is crucial for long-term success, and replacing one addiction with another, even if the one you’ve replaced is far more dangerous than the one you replaced it with, is detrimental to your self-efficacy and self-esteem, and it’s counter-productive in terms of moving you forward in recovery.
Dopamine and Substitute Addictions
Recovery is all about making healthy choices and developing coping skills to handle stress and other triggers. One of those triggers may be an inability to feel pleasure due to changes in brain function having to do with the dopamine system.
Dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s pleasure and reward centers, is known as the “feel good” chemical due to the feelings of pleasure it elicits. When someone is having trouble feeling pleasure, engaging in a seemingly harmless activity like exercising or going shopping can offer a dopamine boost. But when it leads to compulsive behaviors—even healthy ones—it can cause other serious problems in your life and lead to a relapse of the original substance addiction.
Another trigger for developing a substitute addiction is stress. Stress can quickly lead to behaviors that seem to bring a sense of calm and comfort but which are harmful to your health and detrimental to your recovery when they become compulsive.
Common Substitute Addictions
A 2011 study identified eleven common addictive behaviors that someone might substitute for a primary addiction.2 One of the most common is tobacco use. The study found that fifteen percent of people in recovery from an alcohol addiction started smoking cigarettes for the first time after getting the alcohol addiction under control. Other addictive behaviors include:
Avoiding Substitute Addictions
The best defense against developing a substitute addiction is mindfulness. Avoid behaviors that can be harmful or addictive and instead develop healthy hobbies and engage in activities that promote a life of recovery. Develop an arsenal of skills and strategies to help you cope with stress and other triggers that can lead you to seek comfort in an unhealthy behavior.
Engaging with a support group is another way to help reduce unhealthy behaviors to stave off a substitute addiction. Support groups offer a sounding board, and they promote self-responsibility and accountability.
A holistic treatment program can help arm you with the information and skills you need to avoid developing a substitute addiction. Treatment helps you identify unhealthy thought and behavior patterns and learn new, healthier ways of thinking and behaving for a higher quality of life and an improved sense of well-being.