Replacing One Addiction with Another: Why It Happens & How to Avoid It

Replacing one addiction with another can easily happen during drug or alcohol addiction recovery. Without intending to, you may find yourself losing the improvements you gained during treatment for your primary addiction as a different substance or activity takes over your life and returns you to the prison of addictive behaviors. This is known as an addiction transfer, substitute addiction, cross-addiction, or replacement addiction. Some replacement addictions have the potential to be healthy and life-affirming, such as an addiction to running, while some, such as an addiction to an alternate substance, can only ever be destructive. This article will address how to overcome addiction without sliding into a familiar set of destructive addictive behaviors surrounding a new substance or behavioral addiction.

Why Do We Replace One Addiction with Another, and How Common is it?

replacing one addiction with another

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When you consider the fact that chronic stress, an over-reactive stress response, and/or the inability to cope with stress in healthy ways plays a major role in both the development of addiction and the relapsing nature of addiction, it seems natural that replacing one addiction with another would be common in recovery. Stress can lead to substance abuse, which leads to more stress, and to chronic addictive behaviors and motivations that become ingrained at a neurological level—meaning the addictive behaviors actually shape the structure and chemistry of your brain. While these neurological changes can be corrected, this process can take a long time, and meanwhile, you are left extremely vulnerable to transferring the ingrained behaviors to a new substance or activity.

A Canadian study of 404 patients using medical cannabis found that a large number of these individuals report using cannabis as a replacement for other addictive substances: 67.8% for prescription drugs, 41% for alcohol, and 36.1% for illicit drugs. Many of these patients consciously chose cannabis as a less destructive option than their primary addiction, with 67.7% reporting they choose this replacement addiction because it causes less withdrawal symptoms, and 60.4% because it has fewer side effects. Unfortunately the study was not a clinical trial, and so was unable to address if this substitution approach to addiction recovery was helpful in the long term, or merely resulted in a different, but still destructive, form of addiction.

Common Replacement Addictions

Other Substances

Other addictive substances are often to blame when it comes to replacing one addiction with another. When an individual is accustomed to coping with stress and negative emotions with chemicals, they are more likely to instinctively turn to substances when encountering difficulty during recovery. If you end up misusing substances while recovering from addiction to another substance, you aren’t intentionally developing an alternate addiction. Most likely, you are choosing an option you consider to be “safer” than your primary addictive substance.

If you were addicted to prescription opiates, for example, increasing your alcohol consumption during or after addiction treatment may seem like a workable coping mechanism, especially considering how widespread and accepted alcohol consumption is. You may feel like you are making a healthier choice, with fewer negative consequences. Unfortunately, this turns out to be a destructive substitution for most people. A systematic review of multiple scientific studies on alcohol use before, during, and after drug addiction treatment found that drinking alcohol may make some people vulnerable to adopting it as a new primary addiction, and that for most people, drinking alcohol in recovery could increase their chances of relapsing and returning to their primary drug of addiction.

Cigarette smoking is a common replacement addiction, and while it is not as severe as an addiction to heroin, for example, it is very unhealthy and can contribute to a premature death. Smoking can also decrease quality of life, both due to the physical impairments like reduced energy, frequent bronchitis, difficulty exercising, and sleep disturbances; but also due to the enforced isolation a smoker must experience in order to smoke as often as the addiction demands, and the wearing effects of being controlled by another powerful physical dependency. For some, the negative feelings and detrimental health consequences of cigarette smoking can open the door to drug and alcohol relapse.


When it comes to replacing one addiction with another, exercise is the kind of substitute that could end up being a positive force in your recovery. Addicts have the tendency to be obsessive, and for some individuals, this quality is not something that can be changed. They can, however, appease that part of themselves by finding healthier objects of obsession, such as physical activity.

Multiple research studies have found that healthy physical activity improves outcomes in addiction recovery. There are a wide range of reasons for this. Exercise can correct sleep problems, relieving insomnia and advancing sleep quality, and it can improve cognitive function, which is often impaired by chronic substance use. Exercise relieves stress, decreases anxiety, and increases brain levels of dopamine—a neurochemical that is diminished by substance use. This improves mood and reduces cravings. Exercise also helps people in recovery feel like they are doing something good for themselves to reverse the physical damage from addictive behaviors, thereby increasing feelings of self-esteem and self-mastery. Yoga, running, swimming, biking, or whatever activity they choose, is a rewarding challenge they take on because they care about their recovery and their healthy future.

As a replacement addiction, exercise can benefit you, but it can cause problems if the obsession reaches the same level of intensity as past addictive behaviors. If you isolate yourself from others, frequently avoid activities you love because they will interfere with exercising, or consistently exercise to the point of overuse, injury, and burnout, your replacement addiction has become a problem. Remember that exercise is a stressor, and while a small amount of stress that results in positive outcomes is necessary in recovery, too much stress that results in exhaustion and increased anxiety will invite relapse.


Eating taps into the brain’s reward system just like drug and alcohol consumption does, albeit in a smaller, natural way. Keeping your energy up and fueling your body’s healing by regular meals of quality, nutritious food is essential for a successful recovery. Frequently overeating, however, or eating too many processed, high-sugar, nutritionally empty foods; may indicate that you are replacing one addiction with another. Addictive behaviors surrounding food may not be as destructive as those surrounding drugs and alcohol, but they do wear away at feelings of self-esteem and self-mastery, and can lead to a host of physical ailments, such as cardiovascular disease. These negative physical and emotional experiences are detrimental on their own, but they can also increase your vulnerability to substance abuse.

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Sex and Love

While sex and love do not necessarily have to exist simultaneously, both can be addictive for many people. There is even scientific evidence that love, lust, and sex can create neurological changes that are similar to those seen in the brains of individuals suffering from drug and alcohol addiction. The chemicals released early on in a romantic or sexual relationship promote addiction by tapping into the natural reward system in the brain, which teaches you to eat when you are hungry, and sleep when you are tired, and so on. Human beings are actually hardwired to find a mate and engage in sexual activity as a survival mechanism. When it is pursued in a balanced and healthy manner, connecting with another person on a sexual/romantic level is a positive, life-affirming act. On the other hand, when sexual activity or romantic connection becomes an obsession that you continue to pursue even when it causes negative life consequences, it can qualify as a dangerous addiction.


It is well known that gambling can be a behavioral addiction, but it is often difficult for someone in the throes of a gambling addiction to recognize what is happening to them. This can be especially true if you are gambling in ways that people don’t usually think of when they think about gambling. Instead of playing blackjack at a casino or betting on horses at the track, some compulsive gamblers are obsessed with a fantasy football league, scratch-off lottery tickets, or online poker. People can lose actual money with these activities, and can engage in uncharacteristic and hurtful behaviors as a result of their obsession with them. Any activity that takes away your ability to control your own life qualifies as destructive, and is reason for concern.

How to Avoid Replacing One Addiction with Another

Address Underlying Causes of Addiction

Until you address the root causes of your addictive behaviors, you will not be able to move on from them for the long term. Physical dependency is a major factor in substance use disorders, but you are not automatically free of your addiction once you’ve fully detoxed and are no longer physically dependent on a substance. In fact, there is another level of addiction that remains physically present even after detox: the ingrained set of needs and desires that are prioritized by your brain. Chronic substance use trains the brain to replace natural and healthy desires with drug-based desires, and while this effect will be reduced after a week or two of abstinence, it may not be fully corrected for months or years.

For this reason, it is crucial to uncover and address the underlying causes of your initial substance abuse. If you have a family history of addiction, you may have a genetic predisposition to the disease, but it does not mean you have to be controlled by addiction. It does, however, mean that you were probably raised in an environment that normalized and promoted chronic substance use as a way of life. You may have faulty beliefs and thought patterns that have their roots in early childhood and were reinforced every day while you were growing up. You need to replace these old, destructive patterns with healthier, more realistic, and more productive thoughts and beliefs.

Recognize Addictive Behavior

Addictive behaviors are compulsive actions that are beyond your conscious control, and which support drug use, smoking, overeating, or any other addiction. Learning how to recognize these addictive behaviors, even when they accompany a behavioral addiction such as gambling, is an important step in the recovery process.

Some examples of addictive behaviors:

  • Dropping family and friends in favor of a social circle that supports your obsession
  • Spending money that should be allocated for bills on your obsession
  • Skipping school or work, or neglecting professional or personal responsibilities, to indulge in your obsession
  • Lying to loved ones, or hiding obsession-related activities
  • Experiencing negative consequences such as health problems or relationship conflicts due to your obsession, but still finding yourself unable to stop

How to Overcome Addiction by Taking Responsibility and Seeking Professional Treatment

To overcome addictive behaviors, you have to recognize and take responsibility for your addiction. While substance use disorder is a disease, and you are not at fault for a substance or behavioral addiction, there are aspects of your addiction that you need to claim responsibility for—most importantly, seeking professional addiction treatment and following through on the steps required for a successful recovery. The best way to demonstrate to yourself and to others that the hurtful addictive behaviors of your past do not reflect who you really are, is to take back control of your life and become the better person that exists within your core self.

You can’t take control all on your own, however. You do it by asking for help and being open to the treatment interventions offered at a rehab facility. You dedicate yourself each day to learning more about how to overcome addiction.

Take the first step in learning how to overcome addiction. Call 800-996-6135(Who Answers?) now.

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