Understanding Cross Addiction
Cross Addiction is the hidden danger of addiction. A common mantra said in 12-step addiction fellowship groups (such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous) is to “deal with the problem that will kill you first”.
It’s true that if you’re an alcoholic or substance user you’re more likely to die by continuing to use than if you switch to cigarettes and coffee. However, this doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to swap one addiction for another!
What Does Cross Addiction Mean?
Cross addiction, or cross dependence, is the term used for when an addicted person replaces their substance of choice with another addictive substance, behavior, or activity.
When you become addicted, your brain chemistry has changed. The stimulation that your addictive substance supplies turns into a never-ending quest for that next hit of dopamine. As the addiction continues you require more stimulation, newer experiences, and an ever-increasing desire to take bigger risks to fulfill your craving.
So, when you become abstinent from your substance of choice, you’re left with a void to fill. You can no longer regulate your emotions and satiate your cravings in the way you always have, but your brain is still on the lookout for something that can.
Cross addiction is incredibly common among addicts in recovery. It seems like switching your dangerous addiction to something which causes less harm would be fine. At least it’s not going to kill me, right?
The danger to addicts is that with the chemical changes already affecting their brain, the new addiction can quite quickly become overwhelming. This can easily lead to a relapse in their “original addiction” or have consequences which are just as severe11.J. Summers, Unravelling the web of addictions: A network analysis approach – ScienceDirect, Unravelling the web of addictions: A network analysis approach – ScienceDirect.; Retrieved September 21, 2022, from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2352853222000013.
Addiction is the continued compulsive use of a substance, or continued engagement in an unhealthy behavior, despite harmful consequences. There are many substances, activities, and behaviors which can be used in an addictive way, and it’s important for the addict in recovery to try to “fill their void” with healthier alternatives.
What Are the Most Common Cross Addictions?
You’d be surprised at the range of the different behaviors which can become addictive. Sure, most cross addictions might be part of the “things we know we shouldn’t do, but do anyway” category, but there are many seemingly healthy behaviors which can have a negative effect when done obsessively22.H. Parsons, The Impact of Cross-Addiction on Information Sharing Behaviors on Social Networking Sites | Scholars Portal Journals, The Impact of Cross-Addiction on Information Sharing Behaviors on Social Networking Sites | Scholars Portal Journals.; Retrieved September 21, 2022, from https://journals.scholarsportal.info/details/08874417/v59i0002/105_tiocoisbosns.xml&sub=all.
Some of the most common cross addictions include:
Alcohol and Drugs
Alcoholics and substance users will often try to “taper” themselves off their addictive substance of choice by choosing others which seem less harmful. Examples of this include alcoholics who turn to drugs like cannabis or benzodiazepines to help stay off the booze, or substance users who replace their drugs with alcohol.
In any case this is a bad idea. Using mind-altering substances were never a great way to make sound decisions, and as an addict you’ll be replacing your addiction with something just as bad.
Cigarettes and Vapes
Many addicts have been smoking cigarettes or using nicotine vapes alongside their addictive substance. It doesn’t have the same effect as alcohol or drugs, but it still gives you a “hit” that’s accessible and easy to do in public.
Others might never have touched a cigarette but crave something that gives them a buzz or simply wanted something to do with their hands.
While cigarettes will only kill you slowly and vapes might not kill you at all (as far as we know), neither are good for you and especially addicts. Nicotine is an incredibly addictive substance, and it won’t take long for this habit to form a cross addiction.
Bingeing and Overeating
Food has long been a way for people to “fill their void” by controlling their emotions by snacking on something they know isn’t good for them. You might be one of the lucky few who genuinely prefer to eat healthy foods, but many of us will skip straight to the unhealthy stuff.
Food with high levels of carbohydrates and fats are not only delicious by design, but also show addictive potential. When used in cross addiction, bingeing and eating isn’t related to how hungry you are – it’s down to what craving needs to be quashed, which emotion to be distracted from.
Computers and Phones
Technology is designed to be addictive. Perhaps not in the traditional sense, but tech designers are always trying to find new ways to get you to keep scrolling, clicking, or tapping. With the advent of the internet, there is an endless supply of activities which give you that dopamine rush. Gambling, pornography, online shopping – all are easily accessibly and can become addictive to those who are susceptible.
What!? Exercise?? But that’s healthy!
Of course exercise is good for you. For many recovering addicts it provides a way for them to “fill the void” in a way that isn’t harmful to them at all. For some addicts though, a daily exercise regime can easily turn into spending most of your time at the gym.
That’s not to say that it’s as unhealthy as, say, drugs or alcohol. Of course it’s not. But if you’re exercising compulsively, despite negative consequences like injuries or relationship breakdowns, it might have become a cross addiction.
So How Do I Stop Myself from Becoming Cross-Addicted?
Nobody ever said recovery was going to be easy. It will be the best thing you ever do in your life, but also the hardest. Avoiding cross-addiction during your recovery can be very hard, and it can almost seem like cross dependence is inevitable, but there are ways you can cut down your risk.
We’ve talked about “filling the void” a lot in this article. You weren’t always addicted, and there were reasons why you began and continued to use your substance of choice. This can’t usually be blamed squarely on addiction, and generally represents an underlying need you were trying to fulfill. When you become abstinent you leave a gaping hole in your life, and your brain will always be looking to fill it.
It’s important, therefore, that you find healthy habits and behaviors that can help fill that gap. Behaviors which help you to regulate all of the emotions that you’ve been avoiding with drugs and alcohol, without leading to cross addiction.
Activities such as meditation and mindfulness can be an incredible help to reset the brain when cravings kick in, and exercise can give you a hit of dopamine and serotonin (so long as you don’t use it obsessively).
Perhaps the best thing you can do to prevent cross-addiction is to join a structured recovery program or fellowship group. This might be a rehab, a community recovery center, or a fellowship group like Alcoholics or Narcotics Anonymous. Sharing your experiences and listening to the advice of those who have been through everything that you’re going through can be an enormous help, and fellow addicts might have the best advice on how to avoid the pitfalls of cross addiction.
Cross addiction is when an addict in recovery substitutes their substance of choice with something else which they use addictively. This new addiction might be seen as the “lesser evil” but can quickly get out of hand and become just as much of a problem. The best way to avoid becoming cross addicted is to seek support from experts in structured recovery programs, and advice from other addicts in fellowship groups such as AA and NA.
Next: Bad Habit Vs Addiction
- 11.J. Summers, Unravelling the web of addictions: A network analysis approach – ScienceDirect, Unravelling the web of addictions: A network analysis approach – ScienceDirect.; Retrieved September 21, 2022, from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2352853222000013
- 22.H. Parsons, The Impact of Cross-Addiction on Information Sharing Behaviors on Social Networking Sites | Scholars Portal Journals, The Impact of Cross-Addiction on Information Sharing Behaviors on Social Networking Sites | Scholars Portal Journals.; Retrieved September 21, 2022, from https://journals.scholarsportal.info/details/08874417/v59i0002/105_tiocoisbosns.xml&sub=all
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