There’s a common theme among addicts and ex-addicts that struggling with one addiction means you have the potential to struggle with them all. However, the concept of an addictive personality is not very fleshed-out – and neither is it entirely accurate in its image. Understanding how addiction works can help prevent you from relapsing with a replacement addiction after rehab.
There is no such thing as an addictive personality. Not per se, at least. There are, however, addictive circumstances and common traits. Risk factors that greatly increase the likelihood that someone will say yes to drugs, and in turn develop an addiction. But to comprehend why we’re more likely to turn to drugs at certain points in our life rather than because of who we are as a person, we need to understand addiction itself.
Why Do We Get Addicted?
Addiction is tied to your state of mind and to the brain itself – in a way, it is best explained as a physical process and a psychological process. As a physical process, addiction begins with an addictive substance in the blood stream. The active chemical makes its way into the brain, binds to a specific receptor in our brain’s cells, and sends certain signals throughout the brain – usually joy or euphoria mixed with numbness, energy, or even hallucinations.
Addiction happens when the behavior is repeated often enough for the brain to grow used to the sensation, and develop a tolerance around it. The amount of time it takes for someone to become physically dependent (exhibiting withdrawal symptoms without the drug) depends on person to person, and genetics do play a part. But personality does not.
Psychological addiction is different. The two often develop together, but for different reasons: a psychological addiction is an emotional need for the drug to cope with certain problems. Many people turn to drugs out of grief, pain, stress or anger. Getting sober not only becomes hard because of the cravings, but also leads them back into this life that they were trying to escape – pushing them further back down the hole. This creates a vicious cycle.
Both aspects of addiction usually play a role to a varying degree – and they clarify that every human being has the potential to develop an addiction, if the circumstances are unfortunate enough. Socioeconomic disadvantages, mental health problems such as depression (and the stigma and abuse they carry), childhood trauma and the death of a loved one all commonly contribute to the development of a replacement addiction, because they leave the mind vulnerable and looking for ways to get out of that state.
These two things – the emotional pain and the pain of withdrawal – make drug recovery so incredibly difficult. Even after the initial round of detox and rehab, intense drug cravings can persist for months and years, as prolonged drug use can leave a profound ill effect on the brain.
Yet it is the emotional pain that makes it common for people recently out of recovery substituting a replacement addiction for their old one – creating the belief of the addictive personality.
There are uncontrollable factors that make addiction a greater risk for some people than others, specifically genetics (having a lot of alcoholics in the family makes one prone to alcoholism), and neurological quirks such as anhedonia (an inability to feel pleasure like others). Dealing with life without drugs is especially hard for former addicts, and it’s easier to turn towards a “less dangerous” addiction to cope with that challenge, showcasing why addiction replacement is an issue.
Common Replacement Addictions
A replacement addiction doesn’t count going from heroin to crack – instead, they’re when someone who has been struggling with addiction develops an unhealthy and extreme obsession with a “normal” behavior. Instead of drinking, it becomes binge eating. Instead of cocaine, it becomes working. Instead of heroin, it may be a severe replacement addiction to sex.
The way addiction works is that when the drug binds to the receptors in the brain, the aforementioned joy and euphoria is so powerful that it blows the brain’s understanding of what those things should naturally be like out of the water.
As it keeps happening, the brain begins to realize that this is a common phenomenon. To adapt, the brain makes that the new norm. In turn, all the previously enjoyable things you used to do before the addiction have become less enjoyable. Some things are not enjoyable at all. And without the drug, everything is just terrible.
Replacement addiction work the same way, by exploiting the same reward system in the brain. But instead of relying on food, sex, exercise and work as healthy ways to stay happy and emotionally satisfied, we must blow each behavior out of proportion to feel normal levels of happiness, or risk falling into a depression. In other words: the crank was turned up all the way, a fault blew open, and now the only way to get any water to the tap is to turn the pressure up to maximum and hope that crack in the pipe doesn’t grow.
Binge eating is an extremely common replacement addiction. Research shows that people with post-addiction reward circuits in the brain turn to food because it utilizes the same circuits, and taps into one of our most primal desires: not to go hungry. The other is sex, which is also a common replacement addiction in recovery. It goes both ways, too: some people develop a replacement addiction to food first, and then turn to drugs after bariatric surgery.
Overcoming the Psychology of Replacement Addiction
It is important to have an outlet. Human beings need outlets. Our minds and bodies are never perfectly regulated machines – there are imbalances within us always, vying to even out. And if we don’t address our emotional troubles, they will push us over the edge. Therefore, having a strong set of coping mechanisms to deal with cases of stress is important. But the key is for those coping mechanisms to be healthy.
Food can be healthy. Too much or too little food is a death sentence. Exercise can be healthy – overtraining is not. Finding the balance is difficult for someone in recovery, but that is where guidance and structure become most important. In some cases, rehab isn’t enough – post-rehab programs such as sober living can be helpful to individuals to normalize their perceptions of life, and overcome the psychology of addiction through a strict schedule and structure.