Learn / What Is Addiction Replacement? Overcoming Substitute Addictions

What Is Addiction Replacement? Overcoming Substitute Addictions

Kayla Gill
 April 15th, 2024|   Clinically Reviewed by 
Rajnandini Rathod

Have you ever craved sugary snacks when you stopped drinking, or turned to video games to escape stress after quitting smoking? That’s addiction replacement, a common phenomenon that involves swapping one addictive behavior for another. Understanding why this happens is a key part of a healing process that can help you get to the root cause of your addiction and point you toward lasting recovery. 

We explore how addiction replacement takes hold, how to tell if you’re forming a substitute addiction, and how you can build new habits that support a healthy lifestyle.

Understanding the Mechanisms of Addiction Replacement

Addiction replacement, or substitute addictions, is a common experience. One study of people in recovery found that one-fifth of participants had developed a new substance use disorder1 within 3 years of getting sober.

So why is it so common to trade one addiction for another?

The Psychological Basis of Addiction Replacement

Quitting an addiction takes more than just willpower. It requires you to undo patterns that have become hard-wired into the way you think and feel. This process can be highly uncomfortable and trigger intense cravings, especially in early recovery (the first year after quitting an addiction). That’s why some people look for other ways to feel good—which may involve replacing one addiction with another.

Here’s why this happens:

  • Brain rewards: Your brain is wired to repeat rewarding behaviors, and certain substances and behaviors trigger a powerful chemical reaction that feels good. The brain wants to repeat these behaviors again and again. When you stop, your brain misses the chemical reaction it’s gotten used to. And to feel better, it looks for another way to achieve a similar feeling, even if it works against your goals.
  • Coping with emotions: Sometimes people use addictions as a coping strategy for stress, anxiety, or trauma. When they stop, those emotions come back. They might use other behaviors to avoid dealing with the problem directly or feeling what they don’t want to feel.
  • Thinking patterns: Our past experiences and beliefs influence our choices in the present. If you believe you need instant gratification or tend to rely on unhealthy coping mechanisms, you might be more likely to develop a substitute addiction.
  • Self-doubt: If you don’t believe you can quit your addiction, you might turn to a substitute out of fear of failing. If that’s the case for you, it’s important to rebuild your confidence and self-belief as part of your healing journey. 

“Our brains are wired to desire and crave and want.”

One person in recovery, Winton Chavez, explains how the brain changes that take place during addiction can easily overwhelm your willpower:2

“Although beneficial and important, willpower alone will not bring you to overcome your addiction…So many factors play a heavy role in avoiding relapse and continuing recovery…Because really, our brains are wired to desire and crave and want. Sex, food, intimacy, comfort—all of these things are easy to engage in because you are designed to want to do them. That’s how you stay alive. And drugs activate those same systems.”

The Role of Neurobiology in Addiction Replacement

Quitting an addiction is tough. Even after stopping, your brain remembers the pleasure it got from the addictive substance or behavior.3 This state of craving is highly uncomfortable, making it tempting to find something else that feels good. 

Science explains how changes in the brain contribute to this.

Addictive processes and substances trigger the release of feel-good chemicals in your brain. This chemical change is far stronger than it would be as a result of natural rewards like food or exercise. And over time, your brain circuits adapt and become less sensitive to the chemicals that create pleasure. As you build tolerance to a substance, you need to take more of it to feel the same effect. Meanwhile, the parts of the brain that control your decision-making are also disrupted. As a result, addiction becomes more of a habit than a conscious choice. And once you’re physically, emotionally, and psychologically dependent on a substance, it can be very hard to let go of. 

All these factors work together to increase discomfort in early recovery, prompting a strong urge to reach out for something to replace what your adapted systems have lost. 

How to Know When You’re Replacing One Addiction With Another

Recognizing addiction replacement involves being mindful of behavioral shifts and identifying patterns that mirror addictive tendencies. Here are some key signs to watch for:

  • Substitute behaviors: Replacing one behavior with another, like turning to excessive eating, shopping, or gaming after quitting a substance
  • Unhealthy coping patterns: Using a substitute behavior to cope with stress, anxiety, or emotional pain 
  • Impact on daily life: The substitute behavior interferes with your daily responsibilities, relationships, or well-being
  • Loss of control: Feeling unable to cut back or stop the substitute behavior
  • Negative consequences: Health issues, strained relationships, or financial problems stemming from the substitute behavior
  • Increased tolerance: Needing more of the substitute behavior to achieve the same satisfaction
  • Emotional shifts: The substitute behavior becomes your main source of pleasure or relief
  • Urge to escape: A constant desire to escape reality or numb emotions through the substitute behavior

The Benefits of Recognizing Addiction Replacement

While it might feel like a failure, there are real benefits to recognizing when a substitute addiction is starting:

  • Early intervention: Catching substitute addictions early on allows for timely intervention. Because the consequences of addiction get worse over time, addressing it early can improve your treatment outcomes. 
  • Personalized therapeutic approaches: Most rehabs tailor treatment plans to your unique circumstances. The more you know about what’s going on with you, the better they can help you.
  • Increase self-awareness: Spotting the emergence of a substitute addiction requires you to know yourself. This awareness is a powerful tool for personal growth that can help you understand your behaviors, triggers, and underlying issues, and serve you throughout your recovery.
  • Improved emotional regulation: Understanding your tendency to develop substitute addictions can encourage you to explore healthier ways of coping with stress, anxiety, or other emotional challenges. 
  • Motivation for change: Recognizing a substitute addiction can be a wake-up call that prompts you to assess your priorities and make efforts to change harmful patterns.
  • Personal empowerment: Confronting a substitute addiction shows your commitment to personal growth, taking control of your life, and making choices that align with your values.

Learning to identify early warning signs and develop healthy coping mechanisms to prevent relapse increases your chances of a successful, long-term recovery.

The Risks Associated with Addiction Replacement

Letting addiction replacement continue untreated, on the other hand, can make the situation worse.

Replacing one addiction with another is a sign that the underlying problem hasn’t been addressed. And as long as that’s the case, it’s likely that you’ll continue to relapse or develop new addictions. Substitute behaviors—seemingly harmless ones—can be used as strategies to avoid deeper issues like trauma or emotional pain. And opting for unhealthy substitutes can worsen health problems related to addiction, or introduce new ones. 

Confronting these issues is a crucial part of the healing journey. But unresolved trauma is often too intimidating, or too deeply buried, for us to unpack on our own. That’s where professional help comes in. Addiction treatment programs offer the opportunity to explore your unhealed wounds in a supportive environment. Qualified addiction specialists can empower you to navigate challenges, develop healthy coping strategies, and create a healthy, addiction-free life.

Coping Strategies and Alternative Approaches

Not all coping strategies are bad. Just as your brain adapts to addictive behaviors, it can also adapt to new, healthy behaviors that support the life you want.

Developing Healthy Habits

Thankfully, harmful habit formation isn’t the only alternative to addiction. Instead, you can redirect your focus toward positive behaviors and making those a habit. This can look like:

  • Building a new daily routine 
  • Embracing physical activity 
  • Prioritizing self-care
  • Learning to set healthy boundaries
  • Exploring a mindfulness practice like yoga or meditation 
  • Spending time in nature 
  • Discovering a new creative outlet (or rediscovering an old one)

It might take some exploring to find what works for you. 

Having the right support can also help you stay on track when you’re making major life changes. Regularly going to therapy, attending support groups, and investing in supportive relationships are great ways to be proactive in early recovery and beyond. 

Support Systems and Recovery Communities

Recovery doesn’t have to be a solo journey. Surrounding yourself with supportive people can make a world of difference. 

Support groups provide a safe space to connect with others who understand your struggles, share experiences, and learn from each other’s triumphs. These can be 12-Step or non-12-Step, in-person or online. Sharing your story and listening to others eases the feeling that you’re all alone in what you’re going through. And when times get tough, as they inevitably do, your peers can give you the accountability and encouragement you need to stay motivated. They can also help you celebrate successes on your path to recovery, because they understand that even small wins are a big deal.

Real-Life Success Stories

Here are just a few people who successfully overcame their substitute addictions:

Mishka Shubaly overcame his alcohol addiction through running,4 and became an ultra-runner in the process. “It’s a great way to introduce people into something that then later becomes… sort of their coping mechanism, as opposed to picking up a drink or a drug,” says Scott Strode, who founded the nonprofit Phoenix Multisport to promote sobriety through athletic activities. 

James struggled with opioid abuse, and after attending treatment at a methadone clinic, began replacing his initial addiction with methadone,5 benzos, and cocaine. He credits counseling with providing the support he needed to address his problems head-on: “Finally, I started to process all of the things I needed to so I could move forward in life. I was moving forward inch by inch, and then I received the best counselor ever. She helped me so much by going deep into my past and helping me figure things out.” James is now a licensed Peer Support Specialist and counsels other men in recovery. 

Many people find their purpose through their recovery journey,6 and shift their focus to their new passion as a positive way of processing the past. Maura Lerner, who struggled with alcohol addiction during college, discovered her drive to help others. “I will soon receive my LMSW social work license and then start a full-time job in social work,” says Lerner. “I chose this career to help those who have gone through similar situations as I have throughout my life. I want to be able to help families and the individuals they love.”

Move Beyond Substitute Addictions and Into Lasting Recovery 

Recognizing addiction replacement isn’t just about awareness; it’s a springboard for action. Getting professional support can help you pinpoint the cause of your addictions, develop personalized strategies, manage cravings, and learn coping mechanisms that work. Addiction treatment specialists and recovery peers can be invaluable allies on your journey toward a new life. 

Explore addiction treatment centers and search by conditions treated, insurance accepted, and more to find a program that’s right for you.

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