Understanding Addiction


What is Addiction?

‘Addiction is a complex disease of the brain and body that involves compulsive use of one or more substances despite serious health and social consequences. Addiction disrupts regions of the brain that are responsible for reward, motivation, learning, judgement and memory. It damages various body systems as well as families, relationships, schools, workplaces and neighbourhoods.’

The problem with addiction is that most people don’t understand it and think that people suffering from addiction are bad people or people who chose that pathway in life. This is so far from the truth; people don’t choose to be addicted. Most people suffering from addiction think that they are in control of their problem and they can stop whenever they want. They look down on other drug users who have what they perceive to be ‘a worse addiction’ than theirs.

When addiction is at its worst, the person who is suffering from addiction doesn’t really care about their life or the life of others. People can hide their addiction. Nowadays there is so much focus in the media on depression and anxiety and what underlying causes there may be, but if the underlying cause is addiction it can initially go unrecognised.

Genetic risk factors account for about half of the likelihood that an individual will develop an addiction. Addiction involves changes in the functioning of the brain and body which may be brought on by risky substance use or may pre-exist unknowingly.

The consequences of untreated addiction often include other physical and mental health disorders that require medical attention. If left untreated over time, addiction can become more severe, debilitating and life-threatening. It is so important that both the person suffering from addiction and the friends and family of the person understand the seriousness of addiction and understand that it is not their fault – it is a disease and the person needs help and support.

understanding addiction and what is involved

People feel satisfaction when basic needs are met, for example hunger, thirst and sex. In most cases the feelings of satisfaction are caused by the release of certain chemicals in the brain. Most addictive substances cause the brain to release the same chemicals but in high levels.

Continued release of these chemicals over time through substance abuse causes the brain systems involved in reward, motivation and memory to change. When this happens, the person may need the substance just to feel normal. The person will probably have intense cravings for the substance even though they know the consequences and the harm that it is doing to their life. The person may prefer the drug to other healthy pleasures and may lose interest in normal life activities. In chronic addiction, the person can stop caring about themselves and others.

A chronic addiction is a long-lasting condition that can be controlled but not cured. About 25-50% of people with a substance use problem appear to have a severe, chronic disorder. For them, addiction is a progressive, relapsing disease that requires intensive treatments and continuing aftercare, monitoring and family or peer support to manage their recovery.

The good news is that even the most severe, chronic forms of the disorder can be manageable and reversible, usually with long-term treatment and continued monitoring and support.

Let’s beat addiction together.

Risk factors for addiction include:

  • Genetic predisposition
  • Psychological factors e.g. stress, depression, anxiety, psychiatric disorders
  • Environmental influences e.g. physical, sexual or emotional abuse, trauma, substance use or addiction in the family or among peers, easy access to an addictive substance
  • Starting alcohol, nicotine or any other drug at an early age
  • Certain brain characteristics that can make someone more vulnerable to addictive substances than the average person

“We need to start understanding addiction as a disease.”

Cross Addiction

A person who has developed an addiction to a particular substance (eg. drugs, alcohol) or behaviour (eg. gambling) is at much greater risk of developing an addiction to another substance or behaviour, in its place; especially when that person is in recovery.

In short, swapping one addiction for another.

Cross addiction can eventually lead the individual back to the original drug or behaviour. This is why most treatment models for addiction emphasise the importance of total abstinence from all mood altering substances and behaviours and just as importantly the need for proper aftercare in recovery.It is not uncommon for an individual to be addicted to more than one substance or behaviour.

Although cross addiction is common, it does not mean that everyone in recovery is going to develop an addiction to something else. It is however important to understand what it is, how it can happen and how to recognise the signs that it is happening.

What is Cross Addiction?

Put very simply Cross Addiction (also known as addiction transfer) is where one addiction is traded for another or it can refer to having more than one addiction. This is because the new addictive substance or activity mimics the feelings and effects that the person suffering from addiction has experienced from their primary addictive substance or activity that they are in recovery from.

For example, a person in recovery from a substance use disorder ie. cannabis/cocaine may start abusing alcohol or someone in recovery from alcohol may start abusing painkillers. Some people in recovery develop non-substance addictions such as sex, shopping, going to the gym, cleaning, gambling; all of which are done in excess and not as part of a normal life.

Cross addiction often affects those that are new to recovery. However, it could also happen after many years in recovery. For example, an individual that has been in recovery from alcohol for decades could unexpectedly develop an addiction to hydrocodone after taking the medication for a routine dental procedure.

How does Cross Addiction Happen?

Very often cross addiction happens accidental and due to a lack of understanding about what it is. A person will know that they are addicted to or in recovery from their substance of choice. Then perhaps they are prescribed painkillers. Since they are not addicted to them it isn’t a problem and they can take them without any adverse consequences.

However, although they may think they can use the painkillers without becoming addicted, the feel good factor that they may get from the drug will probably lead to continued use; eventually leading to more and more persistent use until it becomes an addiction.

Unresolved mental health issues (see dual diagnosis) can also lead to cross addiction because if you have a history of depression or anxiety as well as being in recovery from say substance abuse you may start engaging in compulsive behaviours to ease your emotional discomfort.

It’s important to understand that whenever someone in recovery is exposed to something pleasurable, whether it’s eating chocolate, snorting cocaine, drinking alcohol or gambling, the brain releases the ‘feel good’ chemical dopamine. Hence, when you are in recovery your brain still tells you that you need that feeling. This need is what triggers cravings that can turn you back to the substance or activity that you were addicted to or lead you to replacing it with another substance or activity because you experience the same ‘feel good’ factor.

Even though the original substance is no longer in your body or an activity is no longer in your life; your brain will still continue to desire the ‘feel good’ factor or that happy feeling and it wants a new drug or activity to give you that ‘high’ again. This is exactly why you need to be attuned to your feelings and emotions. In a recovery treatment setting you will be taught to recognise and be provided with techniques and tools to manage cross addiction.

The best way to avoid cross addiction is by educating yourself and others around you

Warning Signs of Cross Addiction

The signs and symptoms of cross addiction are not dissimilar to those of general addiction and it’s imperative that a person in recovery recognises the warning signs that they have developed a new addiction. These can include:

  • Not taking responsibilities seriously; like attending work or school because it’s more important to use
  • Attempting to quit using the substance or activity on numerous occasions, without success.
  • Abandoning hobbies, activities and other things such as reading, travelling, sport etc
  • Lying to family and friends about usage and may be even ignoring them altogether; being secretive.
  • Experiencing mood changes, becoming irritable and anxious when you don’t have access to the substance or behaviour
  • Breaking the law, to continue using the substance or partaking in the behaviour by committing theft, fraud or other legal infringements.
  • Spending time thinking and planning the next ‘fix’

If any of the above apply, then cross addiction is a strong possibility and remedial action will need to be taken to maintain recovery and dispel the addictive behaviours. It’s time to seek help!

On the other hand, if none of the above are applicable and the new substance or activity doesn’t do any harm either physically, mentally, emotionally, socially or financially; the chances are that you can continue to enjoy it.

How to Avoid Cross Addiction

Education is the key to avoiding cross addiction, not only for yourself but for those around you too. If you already have or are in recovery from substance, drug or behaviour you’re more likely to experience cross addiction.

Knowing that you are at risk is an important first step to recognising cross addiction. Be aware of the risks and keep a diary of what you may be doing to create a cross addiction. As a person in recovery you will be susceptible to cross addiction because your brain’s still looking for that ‘feel good’ dopamine rush.

Avoid taking addictive medications that may be prescribed by your Doctor. You have to take responsibility here and let them know that you have an addiction; especially if that addiction is related to a substance, drug or behaviour. Engage a member of your family or a friend to dispense the medication if it’s essential and it needs to be prescribed for your continued wellbeing. Be particularly careful of pain medications because they can be extremely addictive eg. opioids such as morphine, oxycodone and other related drugs; alternative forms of pain relief can be explored with your Doctor.

Limit your exposure to situations, activities, people and places where there is temptation to use. Replace what you once did with other activities – reading, walking, meditation yoga; find new ways to spend your time. Involve friends or family, join a group so that you don’t feel isolated.

It’s normal to feel ashamed or guilty about your addiction but you have to accept that addiction is a disease not a moral failing. Keeping it in the dark will only increase its stigma. People in recovery can enjoy a fulfilled life, have great relationships and a lot of fun – don’t close the door on yourself – fill your life with healthy activities and relationships with sober friends and family.

Treatment for Cross Addiction

If you have developed a cross addiction, you will need to seek treatment not only for your new addiction but for the one you previously had. See Help and Support.


What is Addiction?


What is Cross Addiction?



Understanding the Challenges of Cross Addiction