Avoid Substituting Addictions to Maintain Abstinence

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People who are in recovery from an alcohol or substance use disorder may sometimes substitute one addiction for another. This may sometimes involve becoming compulsively involved in other activities. Activities like work or exercise can be healthy and productive, but if they become a transfer of addictions they may hamper recovery.

One goal of recovery and learning to live a sober lifestyle is to regain control over your life and your choices. Compulsive behavior, even with productive activities, does not allow you to exercise free choice and is not within your control.

Substituting Compulsive Behaviors

An example of a compulsive activity for people new to recovery is "workaholism"—which means becoming compulsive about your work, career, or job search.

Working and improving your financial situation are noble goals, but if you're working more than full time or spending most of your time thinking or talking about work, the behavior may be compulsive.

The same is true with working out. Exercise can be beneficial to people in recovery, but research shows that long-term sobriety can be hampered if an exercise program becomes compulsive and a substitute for former addictive behaviors.

Unhealthy Compulsive Behaviors

Sometimes people who are in recovery substitute addictions that are not productive or healthy. For example, a popular substitute is for alcoholics to begin smoking marijuana, which is known as marijuana maintenance.

For example, people who previously used heroin or methamphetamine might substitute marijuana. They may do this because they believe that marijuana is not nearly as harmful.

There are many other behaviors that can become compulsive such as gambling, sex, video games, shopping.

In the past, it was often suggested that people who had recovered from a substance use disorder were at a greater risk of developing another addiction. However, research suggests that people who have recovered from substance use actually have a lower risk of new substance use disorders.

A 2017 study found that both increases and decreases in other substance use during recovery from cannabis use were very common. The study also found that factors such as treatment involvement and social influences played important roles in discouraging the use of other substances after recovery from cannabis use disorder. 

If you are in follow-up care in a professional rehab program, your counselor will point out the dangers of substituting these unhealthy behaviors, which may contribute to relapse and are counter-productive to your long-term recovery.

Try to Find a Balance in Your Life

Your continuing care treatment counselor will ask you about your activities in recovery and try to determine if you are becoming compulsive with any of your behaviors. This is a topic discussed by most counselors because substituting addictions is such a common occurrence.

You will be encouraged to make recovery-related activities a top priority of the structure of your daily schedule. Your counselor will remind you of the importance of meeting your personal needs and the benefit of relaxation and leisure activities.

The key to longterm recovery is finding a balance in your life by working, relaxing, eating well, exercising, getting enough sleep, and avoiding overscheduling and overworking.

One Exception to the Substitution Rule

One area of compulsive behavior that your counselor likely won't discourage is getting involved in a 12-step or support group program. People new to recovery sometimes become compulsive about participating in support groups—at times even attending several meetings a day.

In the early months of your rehab, your counselor will probably encourage your active participation in Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Cocaine Anonymous, and/or other mutual support groups.

2 Sources
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  1. Blanco C, Okuda M, Wang S, Liu SM, Olfson M. Testing the drug substitution switching-addictions hypothesis. A prospective study in a nationally representative sample. JAMA Psychiatry. 2014;71(11):1246-53. doi: 10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2014.1206

  2. Hodgins DC, Kim HS, Stea JN. Increase and decrease of other substance use during recovery from cannabis use disorders. Psychol Addict Behav. 2017 Sep;31(6):727-734. doi:10.1037/adb0000307

By Buddy T
Buddy T is an anonymous writer and founding member of the Online Al-Anon Outreach Committee with decades of experience writing about alcoholism.