Substitute Addiction: What is It and How to Avoid It

When a person replaces one type of addiction with another, they are likely to build unhealthy coping mechanisms. This act of replacing an obsession with an equally destructive habit is called substitute addiction. A phenomenon that elicits feelings such as relaxation, overstimulation or escape, substitute addiction can negatively affect a person’s recovery progress. Within addiction replacement, a new habit takes the place of previously addictive behaviour to produce the same feeling or high. 

Anyone who’s dealt with addiction understands the concept of substitute addiction. From smoking to eating; from drinking to gambling; the individual is replacing one addiction for another to compensate for a perceived lack of psychological or emotional satisfaction.

Understanding what substitute addiction is and knowing how to avoid it is crucial to ensure the success of a person’s recovery. Alternatively, it is always advisable speaking to a leading drug and alcohol rehab center in Bali to discuss any issues you may be having further. This article will go over what substitute addiction is all about and what you can do to build healthier coping mechanisms instead.

Substitute Addiction

How can you detect substitute addiction?

Recognizing a substitute addiction problem occurring can be quite challenging for friends, family members, and loved ones. People close to the person may think replacing one addiction with a less harmful one is okay. For example, they might think  it’s acceptable for an ex-heroin addict to use marijuana or smoke cigarettes, but the core issues at the centre of the addiction still exist. The reasons that a person needs to use drugs or alcohol are not yet resolved and may cause a person to spiral out of control into another addiction. The behaviour associated with the addiction is damaging and can cause harm to the addict and those around them if not addressed.

Substitute addictions often share the same characteristics as the original addiction. Perhaps two of the most important questions regarding this phenomenon are: is the behaviour compulsive and is the substitute addiction out of control?

When assessing whether or not a person is developing substitute addiction, there are plenty of things two consider. Most importantly, is the behaviour, activity or substance:

  • A quick form of relief when emotional pain or anxiety arises?
  • Slowly replacing the original addiction to recreate feelings of high?
  • Becoming part of a daily routine?
  • Affecting the individual’s personal responsibilities even more?
  • Being pursued even if negative consequences pile up such as financial problems, physical or mental health issues, and affecting relationships?

Addictive personalities are often vulnerable to other addictions that could potentially fulfil their needs. However, they may seek out substitute addictions that are less harmful than the original (e.g. nicotine and alcohol). Still, one should take substitute addiction lightly as the phenomenon can reinforce addictive personality and may increase the likelihood of relapse during recovery.

Recovering from substitute addiction

Most often than not, an underlying issue is what triggers addictive behaviour as a form of coping mechanism. The issue can be anything from an anxiety-generating situation, an unfinished grieving, or a past traumatic event. Identifying the root cause and addressing them will contribute significantly to the recovery process and help the person avoid developing destructive habits as they move forward.

Some of the most effective, evidence-based methods to fight addiction are:

  • Cognitive and Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (CBT and DBT): With CBT, the person learns to correct problematic thinking and behaviours through developing more accurate thoughts and effective coping mechanisms.
  • Motivational Enhancement Therapy is effective in individuals with substitute addictions ranging from alcohol and cannabis addictions to gambling and drinking.
  • Trauma-Informed Approaches: Address consequences of traumatic experiences, change problematic thinking and developing coping strategies. Recognize one’s need to be respected, informed, connected, and hopeful regarding their own recovery. Understand the interrelation between trauma and symptoms such as SUD, eating disorders, depression, and anxiety

In some, a substitute addiction can be as detrimental if not more harmful than the original addiction. Recovering from substitute addiction may require medical detoxification, therapy and medication if the person has resorted to other drugs and substances to seek high. Cognitive behaviour therapy and psychotherapy can significantly improve the future of a recovering addict and help them establish new life skills that will translate well into their sober lifestyle.

What about positive addiction replacement?

There are instances where an individual may resort to less harmful habits as a form of coping mechanism. For example, a person may develop substitute addiction involving a positive activity like exercise or book-reading. The question now becomes, can this new habit be classified as positive addiction replacement? Does it still warrant concern even if the person is undertaking a less harmful activity? While positive addiction replacement appears somewhat less concerning, if performed compulsively, the new addictive habit will fuel up an addictive personality all the same. It will continue to affect self-control and one’s sensitivity for dopamine.

As a result, the addicted person will become even more vulnerable for additional addictions and relapse. According to some researchers, not all positive addiction replacement can lead to destructive patterns. Activities like playing an instrument, gardening, or reading books present a lower risk of spiralling out of control compared to working out and such. There may be qualities inherent in behaviour that tends to prevent it from becoming an object of addiction, at least for most people.


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