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Drinking Habits

What Are Transfer Addictions? Examining the Science

October 30, 2023
21 min read
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Reframe Content Team
A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
October 30, 2023
21 min read
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
October 30, 2023
21 min read
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
October 30, 2023
21 min read
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Reframe Content Team
October 30, 2023
21 min read

Meet Derek. After years of battling alcohol dependency, he finally took the brave step to quit drinking. His spirits were high, he started attending support groups, and his alcohol-free days started piling up. But after a few months, he realized he'd been consuming an alarming amount of sugary snacks — glazed doughnuts for breakfast, M&M’s in his desk drawer, a Java Chip Frappuccino every day on his way home. It seemed he'd swapped one compulsion for another. 

What gives? In the scientific community, this phenomenon is known as transfer addiction. And while finding yourself becoming an “addiction polyglot” is fairly common — and even makes sense neurologically — rest assured, there’s a way out!

The Brain’s Adaptability: A Double-Edged Sword

A transfer addiction occurs when someone gives up one addiction only to replace it with another. It might seem puzzling, but there's science behind it.

The brain loves rewards. Certain substances — alcohol, nicotine, and even sugar — as well as behaviors such as gambling or excessive shopping trigger the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward

The human brain is remarkable in its ability to adapt. But this plasticity can sometimes be a double-edged sword in the realm of addictions. When the brain gets used to receiving regular dopamine surges from alcohol, it starts to expect them. Take away the alcohol, and the brain doesn't just shrug and move on — it looks for an alternative source.

Stuck in Lizard Mode

This isn't to say the brain is working against us! It's merely trying to reach a state it considers "normal," even if that state was influenced by external substances. In fact, it’s wired to do so by evolution. The dopamine-driven reward system in our brain evolved as a survival mechanism that nudges us toward behaviors (such as finding food or looking for a romantic partner) that ensure our survival as a species.

The problem happens when this system gets hijacked by a substance or behavior that isn’t actually helpful or necessary. However, because the reward system is part of the more primitive, automatic part of the brain — also known as the “lizard brain” — it doesn’t always “listen” to the rational prefrontal cortex. The result? It acts as if the substance or behavior is necessary for our survival.

The “Addictive Personality” Myth

This is also why the common concept of an “addictive personality” is a potentially dangerous oversimplification. ​​We've all heard the term thrown around in casual conversations — it's the idea that some people are just naturally predisposed to become addicted to substances or behaviors. But is there any truth behind it? Let's debunk a common misconception and understand the real science of why people might switch addictions.

First off, the concept of an "addictive personality" is largely unsupported by current scientific research. Sure, some personality traits might make some people more susceptible to certain addictive behaviors, but there’s no universal genetic formula behind it — if there was, we would have already found it a long time ago. 

Labeling someone with an "addictive personality" might even create a self-fulfilling prophecy, leading someone to believe they're doomed to addiction due to their inherent nature. Talk about counterproductive!

Instead, the phenomenon of switching from one addiction to another comes down to the natural way our brain processes pleasure, reward, and stress. We all have an “inner lizard,” and when we accidentally “train” it to get accustomed to swift dopamine hits on demand, it doesn’t just go quiet when we suddenly quit. As a result, we might find ourselves swapping one addiction for another, not because we have an "addictive personality", but because our brain is naturally (albeit unfortunately) looking for other ways to fulfill its instinctual cravings and feel good.

The Biggest Culprit: Allen Carr’s “Big Monster” Concept

A helpful way to understand this situation comes from addiction specialist Allen Carr’s Easy Way To Stop Smoking — a method that applies to all addictions. Carr describes addiction as two monsters: the “big monster” and the “little monster.” While the "little monster" represents our physical cravings for a substance or behavior, it's the "big monster" that plays the more insidious role, dwelling in our minds and feeding us illusions.

This "big monster" cleverly convinces us that a particular substance or behavior (the "little monster") isn’t just a habit, but rather an essential component of our lives. It constantly tells us that we need this substance to cope, to celebrate, to socialize, or even just to get through the day. The "big monster" masterfully frames the "little monster" as a genuine pleasure or crutch.

But here's the plot twist: that perceived pleasure or relief is a grand illusion. Why? Because the "pleasure" isn’t derived from genuine joy or satisfaction. Instead, it's merely the temporary relief from the discomfort created by the absence of the substance or behavior. In Carr’s description, it's like wearing tight shoes just for the relief of taking them off. The "big monster" has us chasing a cycle where the "relief" and "pleasure" are merely short breaks from the discomfort it creates in the first place.

Goodbye, Monsters!

By understanding how this process works, we can see that the real battle isn't against the fleeting physical cravings of the "little monster," but against the deceptive tactics of the "big monster" in our minds. Recognizing this illusion strips the "big monster" of its power, allowing us to challenge and change our core beliefs about addiction. 

With this knowledge, we can debunk the myths surrounding our dependencies and face them head-on, all with a confident, "I see through your games, big monster!" attitude — one that often leads to a permanent shift in perspective as seeking pleasure or relief from external sources turns into something that simply doesn’t look appealing anymore.

Other Factors That Contribute to Transfer Addictions

While the illusion that we need an external source of pleasure or relief is the main culprit, other factors can influence our individual journeys with leaving addictions behind. Here are some of them:

  • Unresolved emotional issues. Sometimes — though by no means every time — the root of addiction isn't just the substance or activity but underlying emotional or psychological issues. If these remain unaddressed, even after quitting alcohol, the risk of latching onto a new addictive behavior remains high.
  • Environmental triggers. Sometimes, the environment or certain routines can act as triggers. For instance, if someone used to drink alcohol while watching TV, they might now find themselves overeating during their favorite shows.
  • Inadequate support system. Without a strong support system, it's easy to fall into new, potentially harmful routines after quitting alcohol.

Awareness Is the Key

It's essential to understand that transfer addictions don't signify a failure in our journey. Instead, it's a sign that the journey isn't over yet. Being aware of the possibility of transfer addictions can make us more vigilant and better prepared to deal with them.

Diagram about the types of transfer addictions

Types of Transfer Addictions

As we discuss transfer addictions, it becomes evident that the realm of possible substitutions is vast. It's essential to understand them to be better equipped and informed. Here's a guide to some common types of transfer addictions and the science behind them.

1. Substance-Based Transfer Addictions
  • Examples: Switching from alcohol to nicotine, marijuana, or a different substance.
  • The Science: When a person quits one substance, their brain may still crave the chemical rush it was accustomed to. Different substances can stimulate similar neurotransmitters, making it tempting to replace one addiction with another that offers a comparable chemical reward.
2. Food and Eating Disorders
  • Examples: Overeating, bulimia, or anorexia.
  • The Science: Food, especially sugar and high-fat foods, can trigger dopamine release. If the brain misses the dopamine highs provided by a previous addiction, it might gravitate toward behaviors or foods that can recreate this feeling.
3. Compulsive Behaviors
  • Examples: Gambling, shopping, or obsessive internet use.
  • The Science: These behaviors can stimulate the brain's reward system in ways similar to substance abuse. The anticipation of a reward, like the thrill before a potential gambling win, releases dopamine, creating a cycle that drives us to repeatedly seek out the same behavior to experience the rush.
4. Relationship or Love Addiction
5. Exercise Addiction
  • Examples: Overtraining, consistently pushing beyond limits, or feeling extreme anxiety when missing a workout.
  • The Science: Physical activity naturally releases endorphins, neurotransmitters that act as painkillers and mood elevators. While exercise in moderation is beneficial, continuously seeking that endorphin rush can lead to an unhealthy obsession.
6. Work Addiction
  • Examples: Consistently working long hours, neglecting personal and familial responsibilities in favor of work, or feeling restless when not working.
  • The Science: Achieving goals and receiving praise at work can lead to dopamine release. For some, this can become a new avenue of seeking frequent dopamine-driven validations, especially if they've recently given up a different addiction.

Understanding these transfer addictions from a scientific viewpoint helps demystify them. Recognizing their root causes and patterns allows for a proactive approach to recovery, ensuring that one addiction isn't merely replaced by another. Knowledge is, after all, a significant step toward empowerment and well-being!

Taking Action: 7 Steps To Counter Transfer Addictions

  • Spot the signs early. Pay attention to new habits or cravings. Are you suddenly indulging in sweets more often? Spending too much time online? Recognizing these shifts early can help you take proactive measures.
  • Seek therapy. A professional can provide tools and insights to navigate and understand any underlying emotional issues, significantly reducing the risk of transfer addictions.
  • Engage in healthy activities. Incorporate exercise, meditation, and hobbies into your routine. These provide dopamine in a healthier way.
  • Stay connected. Ensure you're surrounded by a supportive community, including friends, family, or a support group. They can provide the encouragement and perspective you need.
  • Re-evaluate your environment. Modify any triggers in your environment. If TV time is a drinking trigger, maybe consider taking up reading or another activity during that time.
  • Embrace patience and kindness. Understand that recovery is a journey. There will be ups and downs. Celebrate your successes, no matter how small, and be patient with yourself during challenging times.

Stay Informed

The more you know about transfer addictions, the better equipped you'll be to face them. Read, attend workshops, or join online forums. These books discuss transfer addictions while emphasizing the brain-based mechanism behind them and giving practical advice about breaking free:

  • Never Enough: The Neuroscience and Experience of Addiction by Judith Grisel delves into the science behind addiction. The book provides a firsthand account of the insidious nature of addiction, while unraveling the neuroscience that underpins it.
  • The Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding Addiction by Maia Szalavitz challenges the traditional ways we think about addiction. Rather than viewing it as a disease or moral failing, Szalavitz posits that it's a learning disorder. Drawing from her own experiences with addiction and from extensive research, the book offers a fresh perspective on addiction treatment and policy.
  • Dopamine Nation: Finding Balance in the Age of Indulgence by Anna Lembke discusses the pervasive cycle of pleasure and pain in our modern world of abundance. Highlighting the brain's dopamine system as central to our drive for pleasure, the book sheds light on how overindulgence in anything — drugs, food, technology — can turn into compulsive behaviors akin to addiction.
  • In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters With Addiction by Gabor Maté provides deep insights into the nature of addictive behaviors.
  • Rewired: A Bold New Approach to Addiction and Recovery by Erica Spiegelman offers a transformative plan for those in recovery from addiction or seeking a better understanding of the addiction process. Rather than focusing solely on abstention, Rewired encourages readers to reprogram their brains, habits, and lifestyles for more fulfilling lives. 
  • The Easy Way To Stop Smoking by Allen Carr is a groundbreaking guide designed to help smokers quit without relying on willpower. Using his unique method focused on understanding the psychological triggers behind the addiction, Carr aims to remove the desire to smoke altogether. The book dispels common misconceptions and fears around quitting and offers a fresh perspective that has helped millions break free from the tobacco trap without deprivation or suffering from withdrawal symptoms.
  • The Little Book of Big Change: The No-Willpower Approach to Breaking Any Habit by Amy Johnson emphasizes understanding our thought patterns and the innate wisdom of our minds. The book posits that true change doesn't come from fighting habits; it comes from understanding the mechanisms behind them. Through relatable anecdotes, practical advice, and transformative insights, Johnson guides readers to lasting change without the struggle typically associated with breaking habits.

A Life Beyond Addiction

While quitting alcohol is a commendable step towards a healthier life, it's vital to remain vigilant against transfer addictions. By understanding the science and arming ourselves with the right tools, we can navigate this journey with confidence!

As writer Sherman Alexie observes, “There are all kinds of addicts, I guess. We all have pain. And we all look for ways to make the pain go away.” However, in the words of Gabor Maté, “The attempt to escape from pain, is what creates more pain.” These observations sum up the nature of the mechanism behind addictions — as well as the type of trap they become when we get caught up in them. The great news, however, is that we can absolutely find our way out again and emerge stronger and more resilient than before!

Summary FAQs

1. Is there such a thing as an "addictive personality" that causes transfer addictions?

No, the concept of an "addictive personality" is an oversimplification. Transfer addictions often result from our brain's natural processes seeking pleasure and reward, especially from the "lizard brain" which craves immediate gratification.

2. How does the brain play a role in transfer addictions?

The brain’s reward system releases dopamine during pleasurable activities. Addictive substances supercharge this release. When one substance is removed, the brain may seek other sources to achieve a similar dopamine release, potentially leading to a new addiction.

3. Are all transfer addictions substance-based?

No. While substance-based addictions are common, people can also develop behavioral addictions like overeating, gambling, or excessive internet use, all of which stimulate the brain's reward system in similar ways.

4. How can relationships be a transfer addiction?

Relationships can activate the brain's reward circuits, releasing chemicals like oxytocin. After giving up a substance or behavior, some might seek intense romantic relationships as a new source of emotional highs.

5. Why is exercise considered a potential transfer addiction?

While exercise is beneficial, it releases endorphins, which act as mood elevators. Continuously seeking this endorphin rush can lead to an unhealthy obsession with exercise.

6. What's the best way to approach recovery without falling into transfer addictions?

Awareness is key. Understanding how the brain works and its tendencies can help individuals anticipate and avoid potential pitfalls. Seeking professional guidance and support can also provide strategies to ensure a healthier transition away from all addictive behaviors.

Thinking of Leaving Alcohol — or Other Addictions — Behind? Reframe Can Help!

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