Substitute Addictions in Recovery: What You Need to Know

February 15, 2018 Jami DeLoe

Substitute addictions, or substituting one addiction for another, can become a vicious cycle. Learn why substitute addictions happen and where to get help.

Substitute addictions may become a problem when people who overcome one addiction turn to something else to fill the void. Addiction is a difficult thing to conquer, and when people have to learn to live and cope without the drugs or alcohol they have been using as a coping mechanism, they sometimes fall victim to another addiction in the process. A drinker becomes addicted to benzodiazepines. A meth addict becomes an over-eater. A heroin addict becomes an alcoholic. Substitute addictions are challenging and frustrating for friends and family to deal with, and the people who are addicted may not even recognize that they are substituting one addiction for another.

What Are Substitute Addictions?

Substitute addictions are simply defined as an addiction that occurs as a replacement for another. However, it is more complicated than that. It’s not actually the substance that is a problem, it is the behavior of the recovering addict. And it means that the underlying issues of the original addiction have not yet been dealt with and resolved and the addicted person is trying to fill the void that is left from his or her original addiction.

Why Do Substitute Addictions Happen in Recovery?

There are a number of reasons that people substitute one addiction with another. Sometimes the treatment that addicted people receive simply isn’t long enough. While they are able to stay away from their drug of choice, the stress and anxiety that triggered their original addiction are still there.

Even though they don’t want to use, the desire to alleviate anxiety paired with cravings, push them to find another way to deal with it. Whatever the substitute substance or behavior is, they will likely feel the same relief and feelings of euphoria that they felt when they began using their drug of choice. Thus, a new cycle of addiction is begun.

How to Identify a Substitute Addiction

Recognizing that a person in recovery has a developed a substitute addiction can be challenging for loved ones and the addict himself. The people close to the addicted person may not understand how addiction works and may think that a recovering heroin addict who drinks heavily or a recovering alcoholic who uses marijuana is okay. However, the issues at the heart of addiction are still there and they are causing problems.

Whatever the reason the addicted person became addicted in the first place has not been dealt with and this is likely to cause the individual to begin the downward spiral of addiction all over again. Unfortunately, even though he is using a different substance, the addicted person will soon begin to exhibit the same destructive behaviors and suffer the negative consequences he did before.

Hopefully, the addicted person or a loved one is able to recognize what is going on before it’s too late. The individual may be able to use what he learned in previous substance abuse treatment to begin recovery from the substitute addiction or he may need to return to treatment. All is not lost though, the useful information and coping techniques they were taught are still available.

Treating a Substitute Addiction

In some cases, the substitute addiction becomes as serious as the original one. When that happens, the same type of treatment, detox, therapy, medication, and residential rehab may be needed to treat the substitute addiction. The underlying issues of the addiction have to be addressed in order to keep the addicted person from continuing to find new addictions or relapsing. Two treatments that are useful in dealing with underlying issues are cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and psychotherapy. These may not have been used in the original treatment, but they likely need to be for substitute addictions therapy.

Cognitive behavioral therapy is a combination of functional analysis and skills training. The thoughts, feelings, and circumstances of the individual are analyzed. This involves the therapist and patient working together to identify the underlying reasons for the patient’s behavior and subsequent addictions. Skills training involves unlearning old habits and behaviors and learning new coping strategies. The idea of CBT is for the patient to learn new ways of thinking about and coping with situations and triggers that led him to substance abuse.

Psychotherapy has been shown to be very effective in the treatment of substance abuse. It is talk therapy that digs into the reasons that the patient abuses substances and is self-destructive. Psychotherapy aims to get to the heart of the patient’s issues and anxieties and come to a resolution regarding them. For many patients, just getting their thoughts and feelings out in the open provides a significant sense of relief.

The only way to end substitute addictions is to address the underlying issues and work through them with a therapist or other addiction professional and to maintain an active program of recovery.

APA Reference
DeLoe, J. (2018, February 15). Substitute Addictions in Recovery: What You Need to Know, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 19 from

Author: Jami DeLoe

Jami DeLoe is a freelance writer and addiction blogger. She is an advocate for mental health awareness and addiction recovery and is a recovering alcoholic herself. Find Jami DeLoe on her blog, Sober GraceTwitter, and Facebook.

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