Understanding Cross Addiction

Cross Addiction Therapist talking treatment options with recovery patient

What is cross addiction?

In the simplest terms, cross addiction means you’ve traded one addiction for another. It’s no surprise that many individuals in recovery wrestle with this problem because addiction is often defined as a chronic, relapsing disorder. Cross addiction happens in many different ways. For example, a heroin addict might start abusing alcohol, or someone recovering from alcoholism may abuse painkillers.

The “Control” Game

The addictive mind will often seek ways to control and enjoy mood altering substances. That is a characteristic of this disease.  Addicts often delude themselves into proving they can control substances which aren’t their “drug of choice”.     There is often a pattern of substituting one drug for another. The alcoholic thinks he can take pills; the heroin addict thinks she can have a beer; many believe they can control marijuana.

Often times, this thought process is driven by underlying emotional, psychological and spiritual factors. Dual diagnosis, or co-occurring emotional and mental health issues can also contribute to this type of thinking. Shame and trauma are often a factor, as well. When an addict is suffering, they will lie to themselves, rationalizing substance use in order to relieve pain. (See: Dual Diagnosis)

What usually happens and why?

In most cases, the person either becomes dependent on the substitute drug, or they go back to their drug of choice.

This is because all mood altering, addictive substances affect the dopamine system in the brain. The drug will cause an abnormally high release of the dopamine pleasure reward. Once activated, the phenomena of craving and progression set in. No one, especially the addict, can predict what will happen from there. The fallacy of “control” is part of the delusion and denial of the addict. Sadly, they are often the last to recognize the lie. Many need help to see the reality of their addiction.

What about legitimate prescription medications?

Cross addiction often occurs when addicts are given “legitimate” prescription medications such as stimulants, benzodiazepines, or opiates for actual symptoms. Many struggle with anxiety, ADHD, depression, etc. There is no doubt that these medications can help relieve symptoms. Some may also use “over the counter” substances with a high potential for abuse, not consciously realizing the danger.

But if you have the disease of addiction, these medications can be highly risky and dangerous to take. The brain can’t tell the difference between addictive substances. What often happens is the addict will begin to abuse or become addicted to the prescribed medication, or will return to their drug of choice.

Other types of cross addiction

It is common for substance users to engage in other addictive/compulsive behaviors. Food, gambling, pornography, video games–even healthier activities like exercise or work–will often be substituted for drugs and alcohol. We find the risks for these behaviors to be even higher in early recovery.

To some extent this is normal. Someone is certainly better off eating a pint of ice cream than shooting heroin. For others, these symptoms are far more problematic. Unless they are addressed in a specialized manner, cross addiction issues can undermine the recovery process.  Renaissance Recovery Center is designed to address these issues as part of a progressive recovery experience.

  • Sex Addiction/Relationship dependency

Sex addiction is a serious issue. This disorder can manifest in different ways, whether it be acting out sexually, pornography, or compulsive masturbation. Others struggle with powerful emotional and relationship dependencies. These challenges can greatly interfere with sobriety. The psychological, emotional, physical and spiritual impact of these cross addictions typically need be addressed in treatment.

First of all, abstinence must be the goal. We provide therapeutic support to help the suffering addict arrest the behavioral symptom. Additionally, the underlying issues must be addressed for the addict to experience healing within the treatment environment. Renaissance Recovery Center can provide therapy for these issues concurrent with substance abuse treatment. We are also networked with professionals who can provide care in coordination with our services.

  • Gambling Addiction

Despite negative consequences, some continue to gamble at a high cost.   As with other cross addictions, gambling becomes more problematic as it persists despite significant loss to the addict and their loved ones. When the behavior reaches this level, it is necessary to address compulsive gambling along with substance abuse issues while in treatment. Renaissance Recovery Center is equipped to help people overcome coinciding gambling issues as part of our treatment experience.



While abstinence from addictive behaviors is requisite to recovery, many need a process of time and professional support to overcome these struggles.  The behavior is a symptom; recovery involves addressing the core issues causing the addiction. Our staff has extensive experience working with cross addiction challenges. As part of the treatment process, these challenges can be addressed as part of a comprehensive recovery plan.

The use of 12 step principles is effective for the treatment of all compulsive/addictive behaviors. We utilize this model because it has been proven to put addiction into remission. Our specialists help each client to apply these principles into their personal recovery. We also utilize 12 step programs such as AA, NA, GA and SA to connect our clients to the outside recovery community. This fosters long-term support for sobriety.

Renaissance Recovery Center uses evidence and faith based approaches to addiction recovery.  Integrating the two is the most effective method of treating addiction.  Our treatment experience combines professional and community resources to better ensure successful sobriety outcomes. Contact us today at 480-526-7738 for more information on how we can help cross-addicted patients.