Addiction Transfer: Why Treating Underlying Causes is Key - Meadows IOP

Addiction Transfer: Why Treating Underlying Causes Is Key

Addiction transfer, also known as cross-addiction or transfer addiction, is what happens when you trade one addiction for another. For example, recovery from alcohol abuse may turn into a reliance on cigarettes. An addiction to food, inhibited by bariatric or gastric bypass surgery, may morph into drug or alcohol use. Cocaine addiction may give way to compulsive gambling, and so forth. But why does addiction transfer happen? If you’re in recovery from addiction, how can you prevent the onset of a new addiction in your life?

What Is Transfer Addiction?

Transfer addiction (or addiction transfer) essentially means swapping one addiction for another, whether it’s substance use like heavy drinking, or a behavioral addiction like eating disorders or gambling. 

Addiction has a unique effect on your brain. It alters the wiring of your brain’s reward system and interacts with your stress hormones. This is partly why it can be so hard to stop using drugs. However, soon enough, what you initially turned to for a high or reward sensation becomes a habit that you can no longer control and don’t enjoy anymore. Only the prospect of engaging in a certain behavior will activate your brain’s reward system, but the actual behavior won’t satisfy and can leave you feeling worse than before. You become physically and psychologically dependent on the behavior to feel normal — or to feel anything at all. 

This is how substances and certain behaviors weave their way into not just your psychology, but your physiology. You use them as a coping mechanism, and your body adjusts to their effects. Meanwhile, the consequences are piling up — from health problems to financial, relational, and personal issues. But you can’t seem to stop. This is the nature of addiction: Your mind and body become wired to seek these substances or behaviors that leave you with only negative effects compounded by the inability to break free.

This is why addiction transfer happens. You were dependent on one substance or behavior, and the lack of its presence creates a void. In order to prevent a new addiction, you must treat the underlying causes of addiction (what brought you to it in the first place) and create new, healthy coping mechanisms to fill the void. 

In order to prevent a new addiction, you must treat the underlying causes of addiction (what brought you to it in the first place) and create new, healthy coping mechanisms to fill the void. 

Trading One Addiction for Another

JAMA Surgery reveals that a number of people who have received bariatric or gastric bypass surgery have reported “significant increases” in substance use and cigarette smoking two years after their surgery. Because people who get bariatric or gastric bypass surgery often do so because of their struggles with food, they may have multiple reasons for turning to substances once they’re no longer able to indulge in food cravings the same way. 

First, they may be very disappointed to find that weight loss does not solve all their personal or body image issues. Celebrity Josh Peck testified to this after his weight loss experience, as reported by USA TODAY. In fact, significant weight loss can sometimes exacerbate body image issues, precipitating body dysmorphia, where a person doesn’t feel at home in their body anymore. If the changes to your body mean you don’t look or feel like yourself, you may experience an identity crisis. 

Additionally, for many people undergoing this type of surgery, food was being used as a coping mechanism. In the absence of that coping mechanism, they often turn to other substances to fill the gap. Food and drugs can have a very similar effect on the brain. Not only that, but “the brain’s stress and reward systems are intricately linked,” says the Annals of the New York Academy of Science. As the sensation of reward decreases, stress increases, creating the negative feedback loop that is seen in drug withdrawal. If relieving stress and feeling normal can only be found in engaging with certain substances or behaviors, it can be relatively easy for you to trade one addiction for another.

How to Prevent a New Addiction

The path to preventing a new addiction is to treat the underlying causes of addiction. The Journal of Behavioral Addictions, which studied addiction transfer in people recovering from gambling addiction, reported that “addiction substitution was associated with greater underlying vulnerabilities including childhood adversity, impulsivity, emotion dysregulation, and maladaptive coping skills.”

Adverse childhood experiences (ACES), abuse, neglect, trauma, family history, environment, personality, and even genetics can contribute to addictive behavior. An inability to properly regulate emotion and unhealthy coping habits, which may have been passed down from caregivers or perpetuated by negative experiences, can put you at risk for relapse or developing a new addiction. This is why it’s incredibly important to learn how to cope in healthy ways, regulate emotion appropriately, and resolve trauma. It’s equally vital to get in touch with your true self and discover your own authentic motivations for living without substances or process behaviors. These are the primary goals of comprehensive addiction treatment beyond simply detoxing from substances or modifying patterns of behavior. 

This is why it’s incredibly important to learn how to cope in healthy ways, regulate emotion appropriately, and resolve trauma.

Treatment for the Underlying Causes of Addiction

With better skills and positive, consistent support, you can recover from addiction and not simply find yourself addicted to something else. Tendencies and propensity to addiction never has to become a full-blown addiction. You can get encouragement, self-correct, and cope in positive ways that help sustain your recovery and engage in a fulfilling lifestyle. At The Meadows Outpatient Center, we can provide you with training and community to heal and refresh your motivation to stay well. Contact us today to learn more about the various treatment options we offer, from individual and group programs to virtual therapy and more. 


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