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What is Cross Addiction? Signs, Effects and Recovery

Mina Draskovic, B.Psy., reviewed this content for accuracy on 9/26/2023

Addiction is complex. Cross addiction, when one addiction leads to another, makes recovery even harder. But with compassion and proper treatment, cross addiction can be overcome. It’s good to understand what’s involved in cross addiction so you know what you’re up against.

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Though changing one addiction for another may seem counterproductive, cross addiction stems from basic human needs for relief and comfort. With compassion, patience, and the right support, those in recovery can break free of the cross addiction cycle for good. 

If you feel caught in the cycle of substituting one addiction for another, there is hope for breaking free. Take the first step by contacting our addiction treatment center

What Is Cross Addiction?

Cross addiction—sometimes termed Addiction Interaction Disorder (AID), cross-dependence, or addiction transfer—is a term for one addiction leading to another. Cross addictions can involve drugs and alcohol, but they can also encompass addictions to food, video games, gambling, sex, or any other compulsive behavior.

With cross addiction, people with a history of addiction to one substance or behavior develop an addiction to another substance or engage in a different compulsive behavior. The new addiction serves as a replacement and provides similar relief as the original substance or behavior did.

For example, if you have successfully overcome an addiction to alcohol, you may develop an addiction to prescription medications, such as opioids, or you may start compulsively engaging in behaviors like gambling or binge eating. 

Psychologists also refer to cross addiction as “substitute behaviors,” in which you feel compelled to engage in addictive behaviors despite their harmful consequences. 

Substitute behaviors are an important aspect to be taken into account by persons in addiction recovery…there is a longstanding recognition that other behaviors or addictions may arise while abstaining from a primary substance, particularly during early recovery (1–12 months).

If you are suffering from a drug addiction, our drug addiction treatment program can equip you with long-term strategies for managing cravings, preventing relapse, and thriving in recovery. Drug detox is a vital first step in the recovery process, but our dedicated team of professionals is here to welcome and guide anyone who seeks help with drug addiction.

If you struggle with a dependence on alcohol, our experienced team of professionals will provide comprehensive support on your complex alcohol recovery journey.

Why Does Cross Addiction Happen?

Cross addiction rarely stems from just one cause. The reasons behind it are complicated, just like addiction itself. Possible factors include our brain wiring, genetics, mental health, and surroundings.

For example, addictions may share similar patterns in the brain, making it easier to switch from one to another. 

A 2022 study found that if a person has one addiction, they are more likely to develop another. 

Findings showed positive network connections across different addictive behaviors, with addictive tendencies towards gambling showing the highest centrality, sequentially followed by addictive tendencies towards internet use, internet gaming, alcohol, shopping, social media use, drugs, sex, smoking, and exercise. Symptoms associated with disordered drug use and gambling are suggested to maintain severity of addictive disorders and increase the likelihood of developing cross addictive behaviors.

The study suggests that different forms of addictive behaviors have common elements and connections within the neuronal network. One common feature of many addictive behaviors is a lack of perceived control over addiction. Because of this and other shared features, people with one addiction may be more susceptible to developing another.

Here are some factors that play into cross addiction:

  1. Many addictive substances and behaviors stimulate the brain’s reward system, releasing dopamine and creating pleasurable sensations. When you overcome one addiction, your brain may still crave those pleasurable feelings, leading to a substitute addiction.
  2. Unresolved emotional issues, trauma, stress, anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem can drive people to seek relief or escape through addictive substances or behaviors. 
  3. Genetics can play a role in addiction vulnerability. If there’s a family history of addiction, an individual may have a genetic predisposition that makes them more susceptible to developing cross addictions.
  4. Access to addictive substances or behaviors, peer influence, and a permissive or stressful environment can increase the likelihood of cross addiction. Social circles that promote substance use or certain behaviors can contribute to this phenomenon.
  5. Some people lack healthy coping mechanisms for dealing with stress, emotional pain, or hardships. Addictive substances or behaviors may offer a temporary escape or relief, making them more appealing alternatives.
  6. Sometimes, individuals in recovery may have unrealistic expectations of feeling “normal” or constantly happy. When these expectations aren’t met, they may turn to other addictions in search of the desired emotional state.
  7. If a person has developed tolerance to one substance, they may be more likely to explore other substances or behaviors in pursuit of the same effects. 

A South African study found that 36% of the people in treatment ended up substituting their primary addiction with a different one. After leaving addiction treatment, participants had various reasons for substituting their addictive behaviors. 

  • Filling time due to boredom
  • Reconnecting with others and improving relationships
  • Finding enjoyment
  • Occasionally resorting to substitute addiction unconsciously

Fortunately, you can overcome addiction—even cross addiction—with the right support system.

At Ardu, we specialize in helping you kick addiction. Our state-of-the-art facilities provide a therapeutic environment for your recovery journey, complemented by amenities such as a sauna, a fully-equipped gym, and a rejuvenating float spa.

What Are Common Cross Addictions?

No two addictions follow the exact same path. But certain switches tend to occur more often. By understanding which addictive patterns are linked, we can better prepare those in recovery and their loved ones.

Here are the most common cross addiction patterns: 

  • Alcohol to sedative medications. Substituting your alcohol dependence for opioids like benzodiazepines or opioid painkillers is extremely dangerous. The risk of overdose and death is extremely high when you combine central nervous system depressants.
  • Stimulant drugs like cocaine or methamphetamine to other stimulants like nicotine or caffeine. In this case, the person seeks to maintain the energizing and mood-altering effects. While nicotine and caffeine are less intense, they can partially replace the high and provide withdrawal relief. However, trading one stimulant for another will not address the psychological and emotional factors driving use in the first place. 
  • Heroin or opioid pills to alcohol and benzodiazepines. This is one of the most risky cross addictions. All three classes of drugs act on GABA and opioid receptors in the brain, leading to euphoria, relaxation, sedation, and pain relief. Those moving from opioids to depressants are likely seeking the same numbing, drifting, and dreamlike effects. However, combining these central nervous system depressants substantially increases the odds of overdose, respiratory depression, coma, and death. 
  • Marijuana to alcohol, Xanax, or opioid painkillers. The person with this cross addiction desires to maintain sedation and alter their mental state or relief from reality that they once found in marijuana. 
  • Tobacco or nicotine addiction to food. This switch occurs as people substitute oral fixation for the hand-to-mouth habit. They replace smoking or vaping with frequent eating, snacking, or chewing gum to fulfill that physical habit and provide oral satisfaction. While it may seem like a healthier choice, it can lead to overeating and unhealthy weight gain.
  • Compulsive sexual behavior to porn addiction, excessive masturbation, and cybersex. The trade of one form of sexual act for another stems from an underlying need for sexual gratification and escape. These behaviors may initially serve as coping mechanisms, but they can have negative consequences (e.g., relationship problems, isolation, and sexual dysfunction).

These instances of cross-dependence illustrate the complex nature of addiction and the harmful methods people resort to to satisfy their cravings and escape from reality. The substitutions may provide temporary relief, but they often perpetuate the cycle of unhealthy dependency. 

The most helpful strategy here is to recognize the risk factors that can make you more susceptible to developing cross addictions. By understanding the risk factors, you can take proactive steps to address the root causes of addiction and implement healthier coping mechanisms. 

Many people find the help they need in our outpatient programs that aid with all types of addiction. Our intensive outpatient program is flexible but helps you develop coping skills and strategies for managing your addiction while receiving intensive therapy. 

You can also choose our partial hospitalization program if you want to stay at a facility but can’t commit to a full inpatient treatment program. 

Don’t hesitate to reach out; Ardu Recovery Center is here to support you every step of the way.

What Are the Risk Factors for Developing Cross Addiction?

Cross addiction can affect anyone struggling with substance use. But certain factors make some more vulnerable. Having awareness helps us approach recovery with sensitivity and care.

Here are the main risk factors that can contribute to cross addiction:

  • Psychological factors. People with addictive personalities or certain underlying psychological issues, such as pre-existing anxiety, depression, or low self-esteem, may be more susceptible to cross addiction.
  • Neurobiology. The brain’s reward system plays a significant role in addiction. 
  • Environmental factors. Access to drugs, alcohol, or opportunities to engage in addictive behaviors can influence cross addiction. For example, if you’re in an environment that promotes substance use or gambling, you have an increased likelihood of developing a new addiction.
  • Coping mechanisms. People may use a new addiction as a way to cope with stress, emotional pain, or life’s challenges, just as they did with their original addiction.

It’s important to recognize the risks of cross addiction in order to achieve full recovery. This process calls for ongoing support, counseling, and strategies to address the underlying issues that lead to and contribute to addiction. 

Our drug and alcohol addiction recovery programs also address the potential for cross addiction and provide you with the necessary tools and strategies to recognize and manage these risks effectively. 

How Can I Avoid Cross Addiction?

With vigilance and proper care, you can beat cross addiction. Small steps make a big difference. At Ardu, we focus on whole-person healing to address the root causes. Setbacks will happen, but with compassion and tenacity, recovery is within reach. 

Here are some strategies to help you steer clear of cross addiction:

  1. Identify your triggers. Recognize the situations, emotions, or stressors that make you vulnerable to addictive behaviors. This way, you can plan and prepare for challenging moments.
  2. Develop healthy coping mechanisms for managing stress, anxiety, and other emotional challenges. 
  3. Stay connected. Maintain a strong support system by regularly attending support group meetings.
  4. Establish firm boundaries to protect your recovery. This might mean avoiding people, places, or situations that could trigger cravings or temptations.
  5. Choose a healthy lifestyle. Focus on overall well-being by eating healthy food, exercising regularly, and getting enough sleep. A healthy body and mind are less susceptible to addiction.
  6. If you have a history of substance addiction, be cautious with prescription medications and mind-altering substances. 
  7. Prepare a relapse prevention plan. This doesn’t mean you lack confidence and faith in your progress. Instead, a comprehensive relapse prevention plan will help you cope with cravings and stress in certain unexpected situations.
  8. Don’t forget to acknowledge your achievements in recovery, whether it’s days, months, or years of sobriety. Milestones can motivate you to stay on track.
  9. Continue to educate yourself about addiction and recovery. Understand the risks and challenges that help you make informed choices.
  10. If you ever find yourself slipping, don’t hesitate to seek help and support from professionals and your support network. 

Recovery is a journey, and it’s okay to ask for help along the way. Contact Ardu Recovery Center and let us guide you back onto the path of addiction-free wellness.

Read more about our simple admissions process.

Seeking Help to Fight Cross Addiction?

If you’re seeking help to break the cycle of cross addiction and substitute dependencies, our recovery center should be your first call. Nestled in the serene Wasatch Mountains, our programming is tailored to address addiction hopping and relapse transfers head-on. 

We understand that underlying issues like mental health disorders frequently drive people to abuse substances as a means of self-medication or emotional escape. This is why relapse and addiction substitution rates are so high and why dual diagnosis is so difficult to navigate alone.

Treating co-occurring disorders and addiction requires a multi-pronged approach tailored to each client’s needs. Our dual diagnosis program includes comprehensive mental health support

Our team will craft a customized plan to uncover the root causes driving your harmful behaviors. With compassion and evidence-based care, we’ll provide the tools to manage cravings, build motivation, and fully embrace sobriety. 

Don’t wait until your next relapse or addiction substitution to seek support. We’re here right now to help you overcome cross addiction for good. Contact us today to take the first step.

Find out how to prevent addiction relapses. This can strengthen your sobriety and steer you away from the substitution cycle.

Can I Use My Insurance to Pay for Treatment at Ardu?

You can pay for treatment with your insurance at Ardu if your health insurance provider covers our treatment services (we accept most insurance companies). 

The first step is to verify your insurance coverage. Visit our insurance verification page and gather more payment information.

Cross Addiction FAQ

What are cross addiction and cross dependence?

Cross addiction and cross dependence are complex phenomena that involve the development of multiple addictions or dependencies, often with different substances or behaviors. These terms are particularly relevant in the context of addiction treatment and recovery.

Cross-addiction is a phenomenon where individuals who have previously overcome one addiction develop a new addiction to a different substance or behavior. According to American Addiction Centers, this can occur because the underlying mechanisms of addiction, such as altered brain chemistry and reward pathways, remain active even after one addiction is addressed. 

Cross-dependence involves the body developing tolerance and dependence on one substance, which can then lead to tolerance and dependence on other substances with similar effects. For example, a person dependent on opioids may also develop dependence on other opioids or substances that affect the central nervous system.

What are the three types of addiction?

The three main types of addiction are substance-related addictions, process addictions, and behavioral addictions.

  1. Substance use disorder refers to addiction involving the misuse of substances like drugs or alcohol. It includes conditions like alcohol use disorder, opioid use disorder, and cocaine use disorder, characterized by the compulsive use of substances despite harmful consequences.
  2. Behavioral addictions involve compulsive engagement in specific behaviors rather than substances. Examples include gambling addiction, gaming addiction, and compulsive shopping. These addictions share similarities with substance use disorders in terms of craving and loss of control.
  3. Process addictions are a subset of behavioral addictions. They revolve around non-substance-related behaviors, often related to rewarding activities. Common process addictions include food addiction (compulsive overeating), sex addiction, and exercise addiction.

What are dependence and withdrawal?

Dependence refers to physical and psychological reliance on a substance like alcohol or opioids or a behavior like gambling or gaming. Substance-related dependence leads to increased substance abuse, tolerance to the substance’s effects, and a withdrawal syndrome when use is stopped.

Withdrawal involves distressing physical and psychological symptoms when discontinuing a substance or behavior that one has developed a dependence on and an addiction to. Common withdrawal symptoms include anxiety, tremors, nausea, depression, irritability, and drug cravings. The withdrawal syndrome indicates neuroadaptation has taken place due to prolonged substance abuse.

Those with substance or behavioral addictions become dependent on the addictive behavior as it alters brain circuits controlling reward, motivation and memory. Compulsive pursuit of the addictive substance or behavior persists despite escalating costs to the individual’s health, relationships, finances, and emotional wellbeing. Reduced control combined with an intense drive to repeat the addictive behavior makes stopping without assistance challenging.

What is a dependency syndrome?

A dependency syndrome is a complex interplay of cognitive, behavioral, and physiological factors that collectively perpetuate and reinforce a person’s reliance on a particular substance. This syndrome serves as a defining characteristic of substance dependence, highlighting the depth and seriousness of the addiction. 

Here’s an explanation of the components of a dependency syndrome:

  1. Cognitive factors involve the psychological aspects of addiction, such as cravings, preoccupation with obtaining and using the substance, and distorted thinking patterns. Individuals with dependency syndrome often experience intense cravings for the substance, making it challenging to resist. They may also develop an obsession with using the substance, with thoughts about it consuming a significant portion of their mental energy. Distorted thinking can lead them to justify and rationalize their substance use, even in the face of negative consequences.
  2. Behavioral factors encompass the observable actions and behaviors associated with addiction. People with a dependency syndrome may engage in compulsive drug-seeking and drug-taking behaviors. They may go to great lengths to obtain the substance, including engaging in risky or illegal activities. Substance use becomes a central focus of their daily lives, often at the expense of other important responsibilities and activities.
  3. Physiological factors are the hallmark of a dependency syndrome. They involve the body adapting to the presence of the substance, leading to tolerance and withdrawal symptoms. Tolerance means that over time, the person needs increasing amounts of the substance to achieve the desired effect. Withdrawal symptoms occur when the substance is discontinued or reduced, and they can be highly uncomfortable or even dangerous, depending on the substance.
  4. Continued substance use despite problems is perhaps the most critical aspect of dependency syndrome, despite facing significant adverse consequences. These consequences can include health problems, relationship breakdowns, legal issues, financial hardships, and increasing mental health issues. The syndrome leads individuals to prioritize obtaining and using the substance above all else, often resulting in a cycle of addiction that is difficult to break.

Who are addicts?

Individuals with addiction disorders are often referred to as addicts. These are people who have developed a chronic, relapsing condition characterized by compulsive substance use or behavior despite negative consequences. Addiction can significantly impact various aspects of an individual’s life, including their physical and mental health, relationships, and overall well-being.

Addiction is a complex condition influenced by genetic, environmental, and psychological factors. It requires comprehensive assessment, treatment, and support to help addicted people overcome their harmful behaviors and achieve recovery.

What are the signs of addiction?

Recognizing the signs of addiction is crucial for early intervention and support. Common signs include:

  • Increased tolerance: needing more of the substance or behavior to achieve the desired effect.
  • Withdrawal symptoms: experiencing physical and psychological discomfort when attempting to quit.
  • Loss of control: failing to limit or control substance use or addictive behavior.
  • Time consumption: spending a significant amount of time acquiring, using, or recovering from the effects of the substance or behavior.
  • Neglecting responsibilities: neglecting important social, occupational, or recreational activities.
  • Continued use despite consequences: persisting in substance use or addictive behaviors despite negative impacts on physical health, relationships, or overall well-being.

What is meant by “addiction behavior”?

Addiction behavior includes a wide range of compulsive actions that individuals engage in as a direct result of their addiction. These behaviors are driven by a strong desire to obtain and use a particular substance or engage in a specific activity, and they often become deeply ingrained habits. These actions activate the brain’s reward system, primarily through the release of dopamine, which is associated with pleasure and reinforcement. Over time, as individuals repeat these behaviors, they become habitual and automatic responses to triggers or cravings.

What sets addiction behavior apart is the persistence of these actions despite the harm they may cause to one’s health, relationships, finances, or overall well-being. Whether it’s drinking alcohol, taking drugs, gambling, gaming, shopping, or any other addictive behavior, people find themselves trapped in a cycle where the pursuit of short-term pleasure or relief overrides their ability to make rational decisions or consider the long-term consequences. 

What is another word for behavioral addiction?

Behavioral addiction is often referred to as non-substance addiction. It encompasses a category of addictive disorders that do not involve the ingestion of drugs or substances. Instead, these addictions revolve around engaging in specific behaviors or activities that provide individuals with short-term rewards and a sense of escapism. 

These behaviors can activate the brain’s reward system in a manner similar to drug use, leading to compulsive and habitual engagement despite negative consequences.

Another term used to describe these behavioral addictions is process addiction. This term highlights the repetitive nature of certain activities that individuals become addicted to, such as gambling, gaming, shopping, or sex. 

It’s important to understand these non-substance addictions and develop effective prevention and treatment strategies, as they share common features with substance use disorders and require a tailored approach to successful recovery.

What is substance use disorder?

Substance use disorder (SUD), commonly referred to as addiction, is a complex and chronic condition characterized by the compulsive and harmful use of substances like alcohol or drugs. It involves a range of symptoms, including intense cravings, withdrawal symptoms when attempting to quit, an increasing tolerance that leads to higher substance consumption, and unsuccessful efforts to control or quit substance use despite negative consequences. 

Substance use disorder can have varying levels of severity, ranging from mild to severe, depending on the number of criteria met according to recognized diagnostic criteria, such as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).


What Is Cross – Addiction? | Hazelden Betty Ford. (n.d.). https://www.hazeldenbettyford.org/articles/what-is-cross-addiction

Zarate, D., Ball, M., Montag, C., Prokofieva, M., & Stavropoulos, V. (2022, June 1). Unravelling the web of addictions: A network analysis approach. Addictive Behaviors Reports; Elsevier BV. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.abrep.2022.100406

Sinclair, D. L., Sussman, S., De Schryver, M., Samyn, C., Adams, S., Florence, M., Savahl, S., & Vanderplasschen, W. (2021, December 5). Substitute Behaviors following Residential Substance Use Treatment in the Western Cape, South Africa. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health; Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph182312815

What is Cross Addiction? (Signs & Statistics). (2023, July 10). American Addiction Centers. https://americanaddictioncenters.org/rehab-guide/cross-addiction

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