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6 Common Substitute Addictions to Avoid in Recovery

Have you ever met someone who got sober but found a brand-new non-substance addiction shortly afterward? Trading one addiction for another is a common experience for people new to recovery and can often lead people right back into many of the struggles they faced with substance use.

Having an awareness of why this new addiction happens and the common substitute addictions people may experience can help prevent you from falling into patterns of old behavior that stand in the way of a better life.

Why People Turn to Substitute Addictions in Recovery

Breaking free from addiction is about much more than mere abstinence. Substance use disorders can quickly take control over your whole life, including who you spend time with, what you do from day to day, and how you’ve learned to cope with difficult situations.

For people who only focus on stopping substance use, the patterns of addiction can begin to show up in other areas. That’s why the best addiction treatment programs often emphasize holistic lifestyle change, treating co-occurring mental health disorders and showing people fun and healthy ways to live life in recovery.

Understanding Dopamine

Many of the substitute addictions people fall into have similar patterns of effects on the brain as addictive substances. Of critical importance is how these substitute addictions affect dopamine — the brain’s reward neurotransmitter that is associated with nearly every type of addictive behavior.

Your brain is a complex network of neurons that communicate through electrical and chemical means. Neurons that receive an electrical signal release chemicals known as neurotransmitters, which pass messages within the brain and play a large role in our thoughts, behaviors, and moods.

Dopamine is often known as the “reward” neurotransmitter. When dopamine is released, it encourages people to return to the behavior that releases dopamine.

Nearly every addictive drug is associated with a surge in dopamine levels in the brain. Opioids, nicotine, alcohol, and amphetamines all lead to spikes in the amount of dopamine released between neurons.

But dopamine isn’t just associated with substance use. Any pleasurable activity causes a dopamine release, including activities such as:

  • Exercise
  • Going to the movies
  • Spending time with loved ones
  • Sex
  • Getting positive feedback

The primary difference between dopamine release in these natural activities and the dopamine release during substance use is the overall level of dopamine being released. Drugs and alcohol can cause spikes in dopamine that far exceed what might be released from a movie night at home.

Brain Changes During Substance Use Disorders

When people use addictive substances for extended periods, their brains adjust to the new, higher levels of dopamine being released. Dopamine that enters the space between neurons is collected by structures known as dopamine transporters, which receive the message of reward and pass it along between connections.

But when people have extraordinarily high levels of dopamine passing between neurons, the brain starts to remove many of these dopamine transporters. This is a phenomenon known as “downregulation.”

Downregulation is important in understanding substance use disorders and substitute addictions. When dopamine transporters are downregulated, it becomes more difficult for people to feel a sense of reward from everyday activities. Only the intense, high levels of dopamine caused by substance use can trigger a sensation of reward.

This accounts for many of the symptoms of substance use disorders, including:

  • Tolerance
  • Loss of interest in hobbies or activities that used to be important
  • Lack of motivation
  • Trouble enjoying daily life

The brain will recover from these changes, but it typically takes a period of prolonged abstinence for dopamine transporters to return to “normal” levels. In the case of long-term methamphetamine addiction, researchers found that it took 14 months for dopamine transporters to return to pre-addiction levels.

How Substitute Addictions Fit

People who have recently become sober are still experiencing the effects of the brain changes caused by addiction. They have fewer dopamine transporters and often experience challenges in finding activities or hobbies they enjoy.

As a result, many people gravitate toward substitute addictions. These substitute addictions are any pattern of behavior that leads people to engage in the behavior in an addictive fashion.

They may not be able to control their behavior, may continue the behavior despite serious consequences, and may neglect other important aspects of life in order to engage in the behavior more often.

Common substitute addictions are any type of behavior that provides a rush of dopamine similar to what drugs or alcohol produce. While the surge of dopamine may not be as intense as that provided by drugs or alcohol, it is these dopaminergic activities that people tend to gravitate toward.

Common Substitute Addictions

Here are a few common substitute addictions and why they should be avoided if you hope to achieve a healthy and sustainable recovery.

Pornography Addiction

Pornography addiction is a growing concern in the United States today. People new to recovery often turn to pornography for a sense of reward and pleasure, and it can provide the brief spike of dopamine that so many people in early recovery seek out.

However, pornography addiction is not without its own set of consequences. When people become addicted to pornography, they can quickly find themselves struggling to accomplish their daily tasks or stay focused on the work of recovery.

Instead, their mind can shift toward when they can view pornography again and push other important activities to the side.

Pornography addiction can have a number of other consequences as well. This substitute addiction can often lead to:

  • Spending large amounts of money on content creators
  • Feelings of guilt or shame about your behavior
  • Damaging relationships with your loved ones
  • Feeling like your pornography use has gotten out of control

Ultimately, pornography addiction can stand in the way of you achieving a holistic state of mental health and well-being and be highly detrimental to your recovery.

Sex and Love Addiction

Sex and love addiction is common in early recovery as well. In many ways, this substitute addiction is an addiction to another person and can rapidly interfere with your ability to build a healthy life for yourself.

When people start their journey in recovery and quickly start a new relationship, it becomes difficult for them to focus on self-improvement and healthy and sustainable practices. They become obsessed with another person rather than focusing on loving themselves.

Gambling Addiction

Gambling is one of the most addictive forms of non-substance behavior. People who start going to casinos or playing online poker during early recovery often get hooked on the experience of having a big win — even if they ultimately lose a great deal of money in the process.

Gambling addiction is one of the few behavioral addictions that’s actually listed in the American Psychological Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V-TR).

Thankfully, just like substance use disorders, there are support groups and 12-step organizations dedicated to helping people break free from gambling addiction and achieve a healthier life in recovery.

Exercise Addiction

Getting regular physical exercise is important for both your physical and mental health. But some people in early recovery take exercise too far, turning it into a substitute addiction that gets in the way of living a healthy and balanced life.

The difference between an exercise addiction and a healthy exercise habit is the relationship you have with exercise.

People with an exercise addiction may spend an inordinate amount of time at the gym, feel intense distress if they don’t have the opportunity to exercise, and neglect important relationships, work, or other activities in favor of exercise.

Paradoxically, exercise addiction can also lead to problems with your body image and physical health. People who have an exercise addiction can become obsessed with their physical appearance or injure themselves from pushing too hard.

Shoplifting Addiction

A shoplifting addiction — sometimes called kleptomania — is a compulsive pattern of stealing items from stores. People with this type of addiction often report experiencing an intense rush from stealing and seek out the experience over and over again.

People with a shoplifting addiction will often steal items they never use or have no desire for. The items frequently aren’t as important as the rush of stealing itself.

While many of the substitute addictions listed so far are harmful to your physical or mental health, a shoplifting addiction can often result in severe criminal penalties, including fines, community service, probation, or jail time.


Food is one of the most common and natural sources of dopamine in daily life. However, for some people in early recovery, the downregulation of dopamine receptors leads people to overeat to experience this sense of reward.

If overeating gets out of control, it could lead to the development of a binge eating disorder. Roughly 1.4% of the adult population will experience a binge eating disorder in their lifetime, but 24.8% of people with a binge eating disorder report having had a substance use disorder.

The overlap between binge eating disorders and substance use disorders indicates that this is a common substitute addiction. Many researchers have gone so far as to characterize binge eating disorder as a food addiction and point out the parallels in dopamine response between substance use and overeating.

The Importance of Reward in Recovery

Navigating a life in recovery is often tricky work. While substitute addictions are best avoided, the behaviors themselves aren’t always negative.

For example, it’s healthy and generally recommended that people new to recovery start an exercise routine. The dopamine released during exercise is crucial to finding your recovery enjoyable. Not all pornography use is negative, and sex and love are important aspects of daily life.

The true problem arises when these behaviors enter into the realm of addiction. Addiction isn’t solely a problem of substance use but any behavior that becomes out of control despite severe consequences.

Determining what activities are damaging to your recovery and which support it can be the work of a lifetime. Many people struggle to find healthy alternative rewards, while others fall into repeating the patterns of addiction without the use of addictive substances.

If you’re struggling to find the right balance, consider reaching out to an addiction specialist for help. Starting individual or group therapy can help you work through these challenges, break free from substitute addictions, and build a life in recovery worth living.

Reach Out to APN

APN offers a comprehensive suite of addiction and mental health services for every stage of the recovery process. To contact our team, call 855.510.4585, speak with a representative on the live chat function on our website, or fill out our confidential online contact form for more information.


  • Kessler, Ronald C et al. “The prevalence and correlates of binge eating disorder in the World Health Organization World Mental Health Surveys.” Biological psychiatry vol. 73,9 (2013): 904-14. doi:10.1016/j.biopsych.2012.11.020
  • Schreiber, Liana R N et al. “The overlap between binge eating disorder and substance use disorders: Diagnosis and neurobiology.” Journal of behavioral addictions vol. 2,4 (2013): 191-8. doi:10.1556/JBA.2.2013.015
  • Volkow, Nora D., et al. “Loss of Dopamine Transporters in Methamphetamine Abusers Recovers with Protracted Abstinence.” Journal of Neuroscience, Society for Neuroscience, 1 Dec. 2001, www.jneurosci.org/content/21/23/9414.