Replacing One Addiction For Another

Posted by | Alcohol and Drug Use, Treatment Programs | February 16, 2015

It seems that those who are prone to addiction have the tendency to satisfy their needs in other ways. A recovery alcoholic, for example, who is no longer drinking will often find a way to soothe challenging feelings and manage difficult internal states through other means. He or she might overeat, overwork, or engage in more shopping as a means to feel better.

In fact, one of the criticisms of medication-assisted opiate treatment is that recovering addicts are replacing their addiction to meth with an addiction to the treatment medication they’re given. For instance, someone who attends a methadone clinic once per week to treat his or her addiction to painkillers is essentially trading the addiction to opiates with an addiction to methadone.

But perhaps that is more obvious example. A more subtle example is someone who stops drinking and in turn begins to overeat. In fact, the American Psychological Association recently made clear in the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders that behaviors, such as gambling, can produce the same high, or rush in the brain, similar to the use of drugs. In this way then, it is easy to develop addictions to work, sex, food, gambling, and other sources of pleasure. The pattern of compulsive behavior can manifest in other areas of life, not just an addiction to drugs or drinking.

Therefore an addiction to drinking can be replaced by another compulsion. Often, the need to manage one’s challenging feelings or moods creates a craving for soothing it – if not through drugs and alcohol, then perhaps with food or sex or accomplishments at work.

What’s challenging is that a recovering addict often has the sober life in place when another compulsion begins to surface. For instance, he or she might regularly attend AA meetings, live in a sober living home, no longer associated with any negative influences, made amends with friends and family, and a host of other changes. Perhaps even the schedule he or she created to support long-term sobriety has becomes automatic. There are new friends, a network of support, and a plan for recovery. But, somehow, it seems he or she has more space in the mind to obsess and worry. And what’s worse, drug use and drinking is no longer an option in taking away those hard-to-deal-with feelings.

Addiction is a brain disease of fight or flight. Research has shown that addiction is not a problem with one substance. Rather, it is a behavioral experience that doesn’t necessarily end with the discontinued use of a substance. When someone stops using their drug of choice, he or she will likely develop another means to self-soothe. This is particularly true if that person has experienced trauma at some point in life.

Other methods recovering addicts might turn to include overeating, overspending, gambling, sexual activity, and other behaviors that will help soothe the inner experience. Recovering addicts who have turned to another compulsion are typically aiming to reduce the tension of the fight/flight response which might have been triggered by an uncomfortable emotion or an external stimuli.

When the brain is triggered in this way, the brain goes into what experts call the “cortical defensive bypass” which makes a drink or drug feel like it’s practically necessary to survive. For instance, some people might just suddenly find themselves calling an old drug buddy. The trigger in the brain made them defenseless to using. The cortical defensive bypass is the experience of bypassing any reasoning or logic that might prevent someone from using when feeling triggered.

Certainly, part of recovery is not only healing the addiction; it’s also healing the any past traumas or unhealed emotional wounds so that they do not send someone into the flight/fight response which might cause a craving to use or the need to self-soothe in other ways.

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