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What Is Cross-Addiction and How Can You Combat It?

Many addicts become dependent on another substance or behavior after quitting their primary addiction. This is called cross-addiction.[1] Why does it happen, and how can addicts combat it?

When an addict takes their drink or drug of choice, the brain releases a chemical called dopamine into the bloodstream. Dopamine is a neural messenger, signaling to the body that something rewarding has happened or is about to happen.[2]

After initially quitting their primary addiction, addicts frequently feel a sudden sense of emptiness, like something is missing. Of course, something is actually missing from daily life: dopamine.

Often, recovering addicts find this early experience of recovery so unsettling that they turn to something else to fill the hole. Whether it’s sugar, coffee, sex, social media or cigarettes, all can produce the required hit of dopamine.

The problem with pumping your body full of dopamine is that it leads to cravings for more, as anyone who has had an addiction will testify. This is why a comforting cup of coffee and a cookie in newfound sobriety can quickly escalate into triple espressos and binging on giant bars of candy.

The following are three very different approaches to combatting cross-addiction; all of which can lead to a happy life in recovery from your primary addiction:


Healthy Dopamine Substitution

Cross-addiction may seem like a near inevitability for addicts. Constantly taking substances changes your brain in the long term, and some alterations may be permanent.

Some scientists believe that the differences in certain addicts’ brains were already present before the individual ever picked up a drink or drug, meaning that these people have personalities that are more vulnerable to addiction. Many addicts do, in fact, testify to early childhood battles with sugar or chronic feelings of emptiness. Referred to as “the hole in the soul,” nothing seemed to fill this void until they found their substance of choice. This could well reflect an abnormality in the dopamine-processing systems of addicts not found in those who do not become addicted as easily.

If that is the case, an addict may choose to substitute their old dopamine hit with another—one that is considerably healthier. Exercise, for example, releases dopamine in the same rewarding way that alcohol or drugs do. Becoming an exercise fan could help you stay healthy and avoid relapse.

In fellowships, recovering addicts are often encouraged to do service, and becoming a compulsive helper might not be a bad thing. Helping others produces rewarding feelings as well as keeping you on a good path.

Some addicts, on the other hand, might catch their dopamine hit from thrill-seeking, traveling, and trying new, exciting adventures. Recovering addicts are well-placed to start their own businesses and become go-getters. As long as you have stress management tools in place, the rewarding dopamine that is available from hard work and achievement can be a powerful substitute for alcohol or drugs.

Quit Everything All at Once

Hand refusing a beer

This is not an approach for the faint-hearted but might be the most effective way for someone who has multiple addictions in order to get clean from them all. If we remember that dopamine not only signals a reward in the brain but also leads to cravings for more, even a healthy addiction may make you feel enslaved at some point.

Although most alcoholics, for example, might balk at the idea of quitting cigarettes and caffeine at the same time as quitting drinking, it actually makes sense in practice. In the short term, it means overcoming several addictions at once, but in the long term, you are breaking the habits ingrained in the brain all together in one phase.

Many alcoholics go on to quit smoking several years after they have stopped drinking anyway—and report it to be even more difficult than giving up alcohol. This is because in quitting nicotine, they may be letting go of one of their last vestiges of dopamine-promoting substances.

Getting clean from everything that produces an inflated reward effect as early as possible is one of the only ways to truly beat cross-addiction. However, most addicts do not take that route, preferring instead to retain some healthier substitutes rather than risk finding the zero-tolerance approach too difficult and therefore failing to conquer the primary addiction.

Learn to Tolerate Emotions

One of the reasons why any addiction is so hard to quit is all the cravings that accompany it. As well as being physical, these cravings are emotional—and long after detox, addicts often still don’t know how to deal with these feelings. If you can learn tools and techniques to deal with anger, irritation, sadness, loneliness, or boredom, then you won’t have to use substances to feed emotional needs.

Learning the tools of urge surfing or mindfulness meditation are good ways to increase tolerance and patience while certain types of cognitive and behavioral therapy can help you to experience negative emotions in a better way. Practicing gratitude can also lead to an increase in positive emotions, meaning your mood is generally more balanced.

Through personal or spiritual development, you can learn to either tolerate the hole-in-the-soul feeling if it is caused by biology. You can also help to fill it yourself by developing self-compassion, being kind to others and building fulfilling friendships with like-minded people.

In Summary

A wise way of dealing with cross-addiction is to accept that sometimes, as a recovering addict, you will feel tempted to use. It is what you do with those feelings that matters.

If you’re happy to fill the void left by substances with a positive, healthy activity, then carry on. If you’re becoming dissatisfied or feeling enslaved, you can learn some more therapeutic tools.

If you’ve finally attained the height of spiritual freedom and personal peace, letting go of all addictions might be the natural goal of your recovery journey. It is best to take things step by step—go at your own pace, keeping your recovery sure, steady, safe and happy.

If you or someone you love is in danger for developing cross-addictions in recovery, please call our 24 hour, toll-free helpline today at 760-548-4032. We want to help you begin a life apart from drugs and alcohol.

Written by Beth Burgess