When we put down alcohol, it sometimes feels like a gaping hole takes its place. In the process of learning how to live a sober life, we frequently pick up new habits and pastimes. After all, once the haze of alcohol use has lifted, we find out that we’ve been neglecting parts of ourselves and missing out on pieces of life.
As a result, we might start working out or looking at our eating habits. We might take to social media to share our progress or check up on family and friends that had fallen by the wayside while we were drinking. We might discover that it’s time to put some useful furniture in the house or switch up our wardrobe because some of the garments are triggering.
All of these things are perfectly normal behaviors and belong in our lives. We need to connect, take care of ourselves, and indulge from time to time.
That said, sometimes, normal behavior crosses the line into addictive behavior, and these standard, run-of-the-mill activities morph into unhealthy habits.
In recovery, we call this cross-addiction. The term “cross addiction” simply means that a person struggles with two or more addictive behaviors. So when we put down alcohol, that addictive behavior that we once relied on while drinking might transfer to something else, even if that’s not our intention.
“Cross addiction is accidental,” says Dr. Deena Manion, Clinical Officer at Westwind Recovery. “I don’t think it’s deliberate or intentional. When someone makes a commitment to be abstinent from a behavior or substance, they’re automatically drawn to something that gives them a similar feeling and serotonin boost.”
Here are some common cross addictions you might come across in your recovery journey.
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1. Social Media & Technology
Even for those who are not in recovery or will ever need recovery, technology and social media are quite literally formulated in a way that promotes addictive behavior.
Social media is set up to provide social validation through likes and shares and stokes the ego. It also perpetuates our FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) anxiety. Behind the scenes, algorithms and notifications keep us coming back.
For someone in recovery from alcohol use disorder, social media usage creates a slippery slope.
“A lot of people like to live vicariously through other people,” says Alicia Doyle, LMHC and Owner of Peace and Serenity Counseling in Fort Lauderdale, FL. “What’s on social is (people) either talking about really dark things like suicide or they’re living their best lives. Either way, people get into it because it’s really addicting. They can actually envision themselves as these people on social media, which gives them a chance to get outside of themselves.”
On the flip side, social media can also be a cause of shame and guilt. Doyle references the beginning of the pandemic when millions of people widely shared that they would learn a new language during the pandemic and clean and organize the house during the pandemic.
“These things perpetuate the shame cycle that is part of addiction,” Manion says. When the shame cycle sets in, it’s easier to continue a behavior that is unhealthy, like the overuse of social media, because we’re used to numbing that shame through the use of a substance or behavior.
2. Shopping and Spending Money
We live in a capitalist society that tells us the next thing we buy—the new electronic, car, or house—will make us feel the way we’ve always wanted to feel. And to an extent, that’s true.
“Spending is attached to an endorphin release, and that makes people feel good,” Doyle says, but those feelings, just like the release we once had from drinking alcohol, are temporary and should not be used as a coping mechanism.
It might seem counterintuitive to put exercise on a list of cross addictions because exercise is inherently healthy. Exercise is widely considered a necessity to live a long, vibrant life. Still, when misused, exercise can actually become unhealthy.
“Exercise provides that massive rush of endorphins, which mimics a high,” Doyle explains. And used in moderation, working out and cardio are great for the body. That said, if exercise becomes such an intense focus that someone is neglecting other aspects of life and recovery, it’s no longer a healthy coping mechanism.
“Folks will spend the time to fix the outside (of themselves) but their insides are still a hot mess,” Doyle says.
Exercise provides much-needed movement, strength, and cardiovascular support for the body. It even helps with mood stabilization and mental outlook—but only temporarily. Some might use it as a means of avoidance instead of doing the deep, emotional work that usually requires the insight and objectivity of a therapist or clinical professional.
Food, as a cross-addiction, is a double-edged sword. One might binge eat in general or on sugary foods without really understanding why. Someone else might indulge in unnecessarily restrictive diets.
Either way, none of these habits are particularly healthy. Nowadays, more people understand the dangers of sugar, but the sweetener was thought to be harmless for a long time. Research shows that it is as addictive as cocaine.
When it comes to restricting or dieting, it’s all about control, says Doyle. “When we enter into recovery, we do so after spending a lot of time thinking we can control how we use (alcohol),” she says. “Restriction is all about control.”
It’s necessary to procreate. It feels amazing when it’s done right. Sex is a gift, but there is also potential for those recovering from alcohol use disorder to veer into risky behavior.
“On a one to ten scale, the highest dopamine release you can get naturally in the body is around a six,” Doyle says, “and an orgasm gives you that highest dopamine capacity.”
No wonder sex can become addicting. When sex is used in the right capacity—with consent, as a way to connect with a partner or release stress temporarily—sex is a great tool, but it can get out of hand before one might realize what is happening.
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If you are reading this and questioning whether you might be using one of these behaviors in an unhealthy way, don’t fret. Seriously. Cross addiction is pretty common. It is also completely manageable since science has shown that people who engage in recovery for one substance or behavior strengthen their recovery around others.
There are ways to figure out if you are using one of these behaviors as a maladaptive coping mechanism.
“If you experience shame or using something to numb or avoid feelings, if the behavior takes away from your daily responsibilities, or if loved ones are expressing concern, it’s time to take a look at the behavior,” says Manion.
One of the best ways to avoid cross addiction or address it head-on is to take a look at the reason why you might be using a maladaptive coping mechanism. Typically this involves a licensed professional that will help you navigate any past traumas or emotional issues.
“Ultimately, I tell folks not to discount therapy and be honest with your therapist,” Doyle says.
Shame and guilt will only hinder your progress, says Manion. “Instead of deeming ourselves bad or shameful for using certain coping mechanisms, it’s important we come to an understanding with ourselves and we do this through looking back and figuring out the patterns that led to this in our lives.”
It’s also important to realize that quick or temporary fixes are just that: quick and temporary. The things that will work long-term, like therapy, mediation, and yoga when practiced with intention, will take longer, so an adjustment in expectations helps.
“The high manufactured by a substance isn’t attainable in real life,” Doyle explains. “Remember that the highest natural dopamine release is a six. When you add in extras like substances or alcohol, then you catapult that release to a 13 or 14.”
It’s natural, she says, to experience anxiety and depression at the beginning of recovery, and another maladaptive behavior will not replicate the feeling of using a substance.
“You have to learn how to enjoy things again,” Doyle says.
Doing so, she says, takes time, patience, and help.