What is Transfer Addiction?

Dr. William Beecroft
Dr. William Beecroft

| 4 min read

Dr. William Beecroft, MD, DLFAPA, is medical director of behavioral health at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. Dr. Beecroft is board-certified in general psychiatry, consultation-liaison and geriatrics specialties. He serves on the Michigan Suicide Prevention Commission.

Transfer addiction occurs when someone substitutes one addiction for another as they attempt to cope and compensate for the uncomfortable absence of their former habits and routines. 
For example, if a person who is completing treatment for alcohol use disorder (AUD) begins regularly eating large amounts of unhealthy food, they may suffer from transfer addiction as they are substituting binge eating for binge drinking. For them, the abuse of food creates a similar release of the brain’s pleasure-producing chemical dopamine that alcohol once did. Some studies suggest fat and sugar can activate the same pleasure centers in the brain that drugs and alcohol also activate. Transfer addiction also commonly occurs between different drugs.
This term is also known as “cross-addiction” and “addiction replacement.” Since it has the potential to cause a person to struggle more than they might have even struggled before with addiction and abuse, understanding how transfer addiction works is key.

Different types of addiction

The two primary types of addiction are substance addictions – or substance use disorders – and non-substance addictions, also known as behavioral addictions. Examples of substance addictions include:
  • Alcohol
  • Caffeine
  • Cannabis
  • Hallucinogens such as PCP and LSD
  • Prescription and non-prescription opioids, such as codeine, oxycodone and heroin.
  • Prescription and non-prescription stimulants, such as Adderall®, cocaine and methamphetamine.
Examples of non-substance addictions include:
  • Compulsive exercising or dieting
  • Eating
  • Gambling
  • Overworking
  • Sex
  • Shopping
There is no one cause of addiction, but it is long believed to develop partly because of changes in a person’s brain chemistry. Substances trigger the reward center of the brain. People are biologically motivated to seek rewards by engaging in both healthy and unhealthy behaviors. Over time, substances or activities can change brain chemistry, making a person desensitized to their effects.
Individuals then need more of a substance or experience to produce the same effect. During transfer addiction, the new habit may not always involve an inherently unhealthy activity. Exercise, for example, can positively impact a recovery plan. But when it stops becoming a choice and is done obsessively or compulsively, an individual may be suffering from transfer addiction, which can look very different from one person to the next depending on factors like which type of addiction they are recovering from and what their compulsive behaviors are. Here are a couple other examples of transfer addiction:
  • An individual completing treatment for cocaine addiction begins to exercise excessively, to the point of damaging their body.
  • An individual diagnosed with AUD stops drinking and begins using cannabis on a daily basis.

Signs and symptoms of transfer addiction

There are signs that an individual needs to be aware of to determine whether their new addiction has escalated so far that they can no longer control it. Here are some signs that may indicate the development of transfer addiction:
  • They develop health problems and financial problems because of the addiction.
  • They become obsessive about how to get more of something related to the addiction.
  • They undergo noticeable changes in appearance or weight.
  • They have begun to neglect personal, academic or career-related responsibilities.
  • They spend an inordinate amount of time engaged in their new behavior.
  • They continue to engage in this behavior even after experiencing harmful effects.
  • Their new behavior has become contentious with family, friends or coworkers.
  • They are willing to use illegal substances despite obvious consequences for the sake of the addiction.
  • They behave with an uncharacteristic impulsivity, recklessness or aggression.
  • They lie or are deceptive about their activities or whereabouts.

How to seek help for transfer addiction

Anyone who exhibits the above signs and symptoms should consult with their primary care provider or a mental health professional. The only way to break the cycle of continuously transferring harmful addictions is to deal with the underlying emotions or chemical imbalances tied to the issue in the first place. The completion of a thorough assessment to receive an accurate diagnosis can put a person on the right track to improved health, which could include working through rehabilitation under a team of addiction professions.
Additionally, whether a person has recovered from transfer addiction or is still working through it, attending therapy and counseling can help, as can avoiding isolation. Having regular chats with friends or participating in peer support groups can help an individual from falling back into the cycle they are trying to stop or prevent from restarting.
William T. Beecroft, M.D., D.L.F.A.P.A., is a medical director of behavioral health at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. For more health news and information, visit MIBluesPerspectives.com.
Photo credit: Getty Images

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