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What are Cross Addictions and How Do I Know if I Have One?

A woman sitting with her eyes closed and her hands foldedImage via Ben White/Unspalsh

Wading into the world of sobriety, you may encounter something called a “cross addiction” but not be sure what it means. 

Cross addictions can occur when a person has given up alcohol, or another substance, and then leans on something else as a substitute. This is a natural, human thing to do. It’s normal to reach for alternative coping mechanisms, like cigarettes or junk food, when we’re trying to remove alcohol from our lives. It’s comparable to, say, when your favorite co-worker gets a new job at another company: You will likely find a new co-worker to befriend to fill that workday social void.  

But there is hope! Science tells us that recovery is stronger than addiction. It shows that people who engage in recovery for one substance or behavior strengthen their recovery around others. 

At Tempest, we believe that when you build a holistic foundation of recovery, addressing all aspects of your life, you’re not just working on the immediate addiction to alcohol. You’re also setting yourself up to tackle other addictions that might already exist or “flare up” when alcohol is removed as a coping mechanism. We also do the work that helps us work on or stay away from other addictions by creating an environment within ourselves (such as a sobriety toolbox) that is less vulnerable to other addictive patterns. 

Developing an awareness of cross addictions, and knowing how to reach out for support, can help you on your sobriety journey.

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Understanding & Identifying Cross Addictions

Cross addictions can be subtle in their development, so knowing how to identify them is key. “If a person with one form of addiction notices they have now become dependent on a different substance or behavior to regulate their mood, they have simply substituted one for the other,” says Dr. Kenneth Woog of the Computer Addiction Treatment Program in California says. “Sometimes this is part of a harm reduction treatment model. This hasn’t resolved the addiction, it’s just a safer substitute. Resolving the addiction is more complicated.”

Resolving the addiction takes work. “It involves a process of altering a person’s lifestyle to limit access to the addictive behaviors or substances, working with a therapist to develop coping skills to deal with the urges or triggers and other underlying mental health conditions,” says Dr. Woog.

Lauren Thayer, a counselor who helps people battling addictions, says, “when people think of addiction, they often think of it as a reliance upon something extremely harmful or used to dangerous levels, so it’s assumed that once we abstain from whatever the bad, harmful thing is, we are fine. While the logic of that assumption is understandable, it ignores the issue that addiction is often a compulsion or reliant coping mechanism to help manage the pain from a trauma or deeper issue.”

“Without a new means of keeping that foundational pain at arms length,” continues Thayer, “the person inevitably seeks out another means of coping. The new means can often appear healthier on the surface—it’s hard to dispute that caffeine is better than amphetamines—yet people can again become reliant upon the new coping method to soothe and avoid the underlying issues.” Thayer suggests that for people who move from one addiction to another, it can be helpful to do some inner-work. She advises asking yourself: 

  1. How often do I do this behavior, and how do I feel during and after?
  2. How many times a day, and to what degree, do I find myself doing this behavior?
  3. How do I feel and react when I do not do this behavior, or am somehow prevented from doing it? 

Common Cross Addictions: Exercise, Nicotine & Sweets

Common cross addictions include exercise, smoking cigarettes, eating candy, compulsive sex, and gambling. For people who were accustomed to nights out with friends full of drinking, and perhaps smoking too, then hanging onto the cigarettes may feel like the last refuge of your former life. Baby steps are important; one day at a time. If giving up alcohol is your primary goal, and you need that cigarette to stay on track in your newly alcohol-free life, maybe that’s the best move for you for right now. 

Nashville-based actor and singer, Danny O’Callaghan, is 35 years sober, and he says when he first quit drinking, he leaned heavily on cigarettes to keep him sober. “I started smoking cigarettes when I got sober,” he says. “At the time, it was very acceptable; every AA meeting was a smoking meeting.”

Cross Addictions As Coping Mechanisms in Recovery

O’Callaghan leaned on exercise and smoking to cope on the recovery road. “When I first got sober, I was smoking and distance running at the same time. I got to a point when I was like: I’ve got to stop one of these. Do I stop running, or do I stop smoking? The withdrawal of cigarettes was way worse than alcohol. I had nightmares and cold sweats.”

Doing something—quitting drinking—is better than not doing anything because you want to be “perfect” and give up everything in one go. The sobriety path is a journey like any other, and there’s beauty in the process of slowly undoing old habits and building new ones. Emotional Agility author Susan David writes, “Humans are meant for evolution, not revolution.” Set yourself up for success with incremental shifts. 

Getting Help for Cross Addictions: Therapy & Group Support

When it comes to handling cross addictions, it is often beneficial to seek support, such as therapy or group meetings.

Dr. Ashley Lyden, a psychologist who practices in New York, says, “Starting therapy can be very anxiety-provoking in itself, since by doing so it’s an admission of needing or wanting support, and in some ways may feel like a personal admission of failure. That is, failure to handle problems without the help of a professional. In reality, seeking out therapy is a sign of strength—an ability to acknowledge that just because I could do this on my own doesn’t mean I should have to, and I’m not going to let my pride interfere with getting to a healthier place of functioning.”

O’Callaghan is a big proponent of reaching out and getting help. He says, “Go and get the support that you need—the brain creating problems might not be the brain that’ll solve those problems. Everything is just one day at a time. Don’t just go to meetings, but also raise your hand. It’s amazing how a problem will loosen when you share it with a group of people in a meeting.”

Counselor Lauren Thayer encourages people to cultivate awareness as a helpful practice through sobriety. “The first step is mindful awareness,” she says, “but because our own habits or limited self-awareness can impede our judgment, utilizing a safe network of folks to reflect their perceptions of your behavior can be crucial. If you’re curious or concerned about your behavior and aren’t sure where to start, seek out a therapist or mental health professional.”

In addition to therapy, many different groups offer support for addictive patterns that may present along the sobriety journey. Plus, this month in Tempest membership, we’re discussing cross addictions with experts. 

A Gentle Approach

Being kind to yourself in the sobriety journey is an excellent way to pave the road for lasting success. What you’re doing—taking positive steps by living an alcohol-free life—is challenging and rewarding. 

You’re making moves to create an even better, more fulfilling, empowered life for yourself, and that is something of which to be very proud. 

Explore a future without alcohol.

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