Cross Addiction

To a person with alcoholism, any drink that contains alcohol can look a lot like temptation. In time, those drinks could even look like enemies. As a result, people with alcoholism may avoid anything and everything that even looks like an alcoholic beverage. They need to structure their lives to eliminate the risk of a relapse to drinking. Avoiding any alcohol is one way to do that.

But, for people with a history of addiction, the danger does not just lie within one type of substance that has been problematic in the past. In fact, some experts believe that the changes the brain goes through in response to an addiction — any addiction — could make the development of another addiction more likely.

This is a phenomenon called cross addiction, and it could be a problem for anyone who deals with addiction of any kind.

substance abuse development

How Do Addictions Develop?

brain and dopamine

In an article written for Behavioral Medicine Associates, a therapist outlines the characteristics that define an addiction. They include:

  1. Obsession with the target of the addiction
  2. Repetition of behaviors that support the addiction
  3. Inability to see the harm the behaviors can cause
  4. Defenses and thinking patterns that lock the behaviors in place and ensure that the harms remain hidden

These same characteristics apply whether people are addicted to the same thing or different things. The characteristics of addiction do not change. Often, brain chemistry is to blame.

Most substances of abuse alter chemical pathways in the brain, skewing the messages the brain uses in order to signal reward. Rather than sending out a small signal in response to a small cue, a drug prompts the brain to send out a spike of chemicals in response to nothing at all.

A brain that is consistently flooded by those signals can become immune to small signals. That means people who use drugs may be chemically unable to feel pleasure from natural, normal sources. Their brain cells have been damaged.

One drug may have set the brain on this destructive cycle. But a brain that is amended by drugs could use almost anything to fill that gap that causes depression. All sorts of substances could help the brain to deal with the downgrade of pleasure responses. Unfortunately, all sorts of substances could then be targets for new addictions.

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Other Substances of Abuse

Some people use drugs in combination throughout the course of an addiction. For example, in a study in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence, researchers found that some people mixing painkillers and benzodiazepines did so in order to enhance their experiences. While the painkillers produced a high, the benzodiazepines made the high last longer. These people may have started an addiction with painkillers, but they developed a benzo addiction in time.

This sort of addiction is known as a poly addiction. There are two addictions at the same time in this situation. A cross addiction is a little different.

Cross addictions develop when a person is sober from one substance but is looking for a way to fill the sobriety void. This person might avoid hard drugs, for example, but might lean on:

  • Nicotine
  • Alcohol
  • Over-the-counter medications, like cough syrup
  • Prescription medications

The original addiction may be dormant, but the damage these replacement drugs can do is very real and hard to avoid. Here, the person has simply replaced one addiction with another.

cross addiction

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Prescription Medications

making a tiny high bigger

Cross addictions can sometimes develop due to the solutions people try in an effort to combat an addiction. For example, people addicted to opiate drugs like heroin or prescription painkillers might need replacement drugs in order to quell their cravings. These drugs are not as strong as opiates, and they come with safeguards to prevent abuse, but they can still deliver a tiny jolt of a high.

People can make that tiny high bigger through the use of:

  • Needles (for injecting the pills)
  • Spoons (to crush the pills into a powder)
  • Straws (to snort the pills)
  • Heat (to turn the pills into a vapor)

These steps push all the power of the medications into the person’s body at once, and they can deliver a potent high as a result.

People may also develop simple addictions to the medications they take in rehab. Many providers use benzodiazepines during rehab to ease feelings of anxiety and allow for better sleep. As a therapist writing in Psychology Today points out, those benzodiazepine drugs work on the same receptors used by alcohol and sedatives, so they can awaken the same addictive tendencies.

Using the medications for a short period of time can prevent an addiction from forming, says PubMed. But if the prescriptions go on for weeks, an addiction could be a very real consequence.

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Habits and Behaviors

Just as replacement drugs or augmented drugs could spark a cross addiction, so could habits and behaviors. In fact, some of the behaviors people might pick up during rehab could become targets for abuse in time.

Exercise is a good example. When people exercise, the brain releases a little spurt of dopamine, which is the feel-good chemical released by drugs of abuse. When people with damaged brains exercise, they might get the boost of dopamine they have been missing, and that could spark an addiction to exercise.

About 3 percent of regular gym-goers are addicted to exercise, per research in Psychology Today, and about 50 percent of marathon runners have an exercise addiction. While exercise is a healthy habit, it can move into unhealthy territory when it becomes an addiction.

Food can also be a panacea for people in recovery, and that could also lead to cross addictions. Some people use food to give their mouths and hands something to do, since they have no “busy” tasks since sobriety took hold. Others use the boost of energy a sugary snack can provide to help them deal with the loss they feel when they cannot drink sugary alcoholic beverages. And still others use salty foods to help them overcome cravings for snorted drugs. In time, those addictions can translate into weight gain and serious health problems.

Sex can also be a target for an addictive process. Some 12 million people struggle with sex addiction, according to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, and this addiction is characterized by:

  • Loss of control over the sex act
  • Need for more and riskier sex acts
  • Negative life consequences due to sex
  • Inability to stop indulging in risky sex

These symptoms are achingly familiar to anyone who has lived with an addiction to drugs. The same chemical interplay is involved. Sex releases many of the same chemicals drugs release, and it prompts the same good feelings and sense of calm. In recovery, people might find that they are having more sex than they once did, and they may become addicted to sex over time.

addicted to exercise

Gambling can also be subject to cross addiction. Every gambling game comes with risks and hazards, and the brain tends to release huge amounts of dopamine in response to a win, especially if that win was unexpected. People may find that they simply cannot stop heading into casinos to gamble, or they may download games on their phones or computers and spend hours trying to win those electronic games of chance. In time, that behavior could become addictive.

In Scientific American, researchers note that gambling addictions use the same brain circuits that drug addictions do, and that people who have gambling addictions tend to have the same sorts of problems seen in people who have drug addictions. These two conditions are so similar, in fact, that gambling addictions have been mentioned in the text doctors use in order to diagnose chemical addictions (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). It is simply accepted that gambling can lead to compulsion.

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Is It Inevitable?

getting treatment

It is clear that addictions to one chemical can become addictions to other chemicals or even other behaviors in time. But people who have addictions are not destined to develop these cross addictions. In fact, with the right help, these cross addictions may never come up.

In a study in JAMA, researchers examined more than 34,000 people and homed in one those who had addictions. They found that those who got treatment for an addiction were less likely to develop a new addiction. In short, getting treatment made people less likely to develop a cross addiction.

The key involves the kind of help you get. A qualified rehab team can help you to understand the addiction process, so you can make good decisions about the habits you develop during the next stage of your life. You will walk away from treatment understanding your personal warning signs for addiction, so you can avoid repeating your mistakes. You may walk in with a problem involving one drug, but you may walk out with skills you could apply to almost anything in life.

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