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Transfer Addiction: What is It and How It Works

A transfer addiction—or “cross addiction”—is essentially trading one problematic behavior for another. Oftentimes, this occurs when you don’t have an adequate support system or healthy replacement strategies to cope with stress after you quit abusing drugs or alcohol.

Buckhead Behavioral Health in Atlanta, Georgia, is here to help you overcome your addiction to reduce the risk of developing a transfer addiction while in recovery. Visit our admissions page today to get started.

What Is a Transfer Addiction? (And What Causes Them?)

A transfer addiction means that a person replaces one addictive or compulsive behavior with another.

Therefore, although you don’t abuse drugs or alcohol anymore, you’re still not fully engaged in the recovery process. Rather, all of the underlying issues driving your substance abuse are now challenged to another type of behavior. Oftentimes, this behavior is more acceptable and less harmful than drug or alcohol abuse, but it still gets in the way of healing.

Examples of transfer addictions include the following:

  • Overworking. Becoming a workaholic is common among those in recovery from drug or alcohol addiction. They use work to avoid treatment or peer support groups.
  • Shopping. Excessive shopping could give you a similar rush or high of substance abuse. However, the excitement of getting new things doesn’t last— and your debt can pile up quickly.
  • Overexercising. Exercise can be a vital part of a comprehensive recovery plan. Still, some people spend several hours per day exercising, which gets in the way of relationships and other priorities.
  • Gambling. Some people transfer their addictive tendencies toward gambling. This can cause several of the same issues as substance abuse, like financial problems and cravings.
  • Porn/Sex Addiction. Sexual activity and stimulation cause similar euphoric effects as some drugs. So, some people excessively use sex and pornography to achieve these effects.
  • Social Media. Getting “likes” or attention on social media apps can sometimes mimic the rush of substance abuse. If you’re addicted to social media, you might feel on edge if you can’t access your phone for an extended period of time.
  • Overeating. Sometimes, drug and alcohol abuse suppresses your appetite, so you might eat more after you quit. However, some people replace substance abuse with unhealthy or excessive eating habits.

Essentially, any behavior that becomes compulsive and leads to negative consequences can become a transfer addiction. Some of these behaviors, like shopping or sexual activity are unavoidable, so you can’t quit them.

But what causes behaviors that can be otherwise healthy and necessary to turn into a transfer addiction?

The Causes of a Transfer Addiction

Most often, a transfer addiction is caused by untreated mental health conditions or a treatment plan that is no longer effective.

There isn’t always a clear cause for a transfer addiction. Sometimes, people develop transfer addictions without even realizing it. But over time, they continue to rely upon compulsive behavior to cope with underlying issues.

Potential causes of transfer addictions include the following:

  • Untreated mental health disorders. According to the 2022 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), “8.4 percent (or 21.5 million people) had both AMI [any mental illness] and an SUD [substance use disorder].” Fortunately, many treatment programs offer dual diagnosis treatment to address this common co-occurrence.
  • Underlying trauma. Similar to untreated mental health disorders, some people abuse substances to cope with traumatic experiences. Therefore, if they never address the underlying trauma, they could transfer their addiction to another behavior to cope.
  • Lack of healthy replacement activities. When you stop abusing drugs or alcohol, you need to find healthy ways to occupy your time. Many people’s entire social lives revolved around substance abuse—getting high with friends, going to bars, etc. So, when you quit drugs and alcohol, you need to find healthy ways to socialize and fill your time.
  • No support system. Not having a support system can lead to unhealthy habits because no one holds you accountable for your behavior. Attending alumni groups at your treatment center, or 12-step recovery groups, are good ways to stay accountable for your actions.
  • Ineffective treatment. This isn’t to say that your current treatment program is bad, however, it just might not be right for you. Additionally, this can happen over time—for instance, some psychiatric medications lose effectiveness as you get used to them or new stressors come up that require new coping skills.

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Transfer Addiction?

The signs and symptoms of a transfer addiction are similar to those of drug or alcohol addiction.

You might not notice signs of transfer addiction right away because you aren’t engaging in substance abuse. Some people assume that if they just stop abusing drugs and alcohol, they’ll be fine. Recovery doesn’t work that way—you need to not only quit your addiction but also learn healthy ways to live your life.

Common signs and symptoms of transfer addiction include:

  • Neglecting responsibility to family, school, or work
  • Spending excessive amounts of time engaged in a compulsive behavior
  • Continuing replacement behavior despite negative effects
  • Getting irritatable or agitated when you can’t engage in the replacement behavior
  • Obsessive thinking about the behavior that occupies most of your thoughts
  • Hiding the behavior from family and friends
  • Financial problems due to excessive spending
  • Change in weight (overeating transfer addiction)

Thus, the above-mentioned signs and symptoms are almost exactly the same as the signs of substance abuse. The only difference is that you are no longer abusing substances. But, when you still have the same problems and negative consequences as you did before you quit drugs and alcohol, you might have replaced one maladaptive behavior for another.

How Can I Prevent a Transfer Addiction?

Fully engaging in the addiction recovery process will help you avoid a transfer addiction.

In other words, you need to continue following through with your coping strategies, relapse prevention, and aftercare treatment. You also need to remain vigilant of your symptoms and relapse triggers so that you notice when a particular behavior is replacing your addiction.

Aftercare programs and peer support are among the best ways to prevent and recognize a transfer addiction.

During your recovery from addiction, you might slip up and relapse—but this doesn’t always mean you go back to abusing substances. Instead, you can relapse when you lose focus on your recovery.

Oftentimes, people get complacent during long-term recovery. This is because, over time, you start to forget about how addiction impacted your life. When things go well for a long time after treatment, it’s easy to lose sight of the problems you had.

By continuing care in an alumni support group or other peer recovery group, you can stay connected to the recovery community and remind yourself of what is at stake. Your peers can also help you identify any problematic or avoidance behaviors you are engaging in that could lead to a transfer addiction.

Lastly, if you have an underlying mental health disorder or lingering issue after treatment, it’s important to get support. Outpatient therapy and mental health treatment programs can be highly beneficial to prevent or treat transfer addictions.

Get Help for Your Addiction Today

A transfer addiction, or cross addiction, could be a sign that you need additional support to overcome the underlying issues of a past drug or alcohol addiction. Buckhead Behavioral Health is here to help you develop the coping skills you need to quit drugs or alcohol without developing a transfer addiction afterward. Still, if you’re struggling with other problematic behaviors during long-term recovery from addiction, our outpatient programs can help you find better ways to cope and manage underlying symptoms.

Contact us today to learn more.

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