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  • David Marion

What is Cross-Addiction? 6 Ways for Preventing Cross-Addiction from Blindsiding You in Recovery

what is cross addiction

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In this article, you’ll find answers to common questions like…

  • What is cross-addiction?

  • What causes cross-addiction to develop?

  • Is preventing cross-addiction possible?


Achieving recovery from addiction is one of the most powerful, liberating, and enlightening experiences you can go through in this lifetime.

Unfortunately, slipping into a cross-addiction has a way of dimming that light, and undoing everything you’ve worked so hard for.

Read on to discover what a cross-addiction is, and how you can stay vigilant to prevent cross-addiction from developing.

What is cross-addiction?

Cross-addiction is a term used to describe when someone develops an addiction to two separate substances or behaviors. The addictions can consist of drugs and alcohol, but can also include compulsive behaviors like gambling, sex, and exercise. Cross addiction suggests that if someone struggles with addiction to one substance or behavior, they are at increased odds of developing an addiction to another substance or behavior.

There are two general types of cross-addiction that a person can develop. One type of cross-addiction can happen after someone stops using one substance, experiences a period of sobriety, and then begins using another substance or engaging in an addictive behavior. For example, someone may struggle with alcohol use, gain sobriety, and then down the road, they become addicted to benzodiazepines.

The second type of cross-addiction can happen when someone is in active addiction and becomes addicted to another substance or behavior simultaneously. For example, someone may be addicted to gambling, begins drinking while they gamble, and before they realize it, they’re addicted to alcohol as well.

Research on cross addiction

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What does the research say?

The theory of cross-addiction has been relatively controversial in the world of addiction recovery. Even though it appears that many people in recovery (or in active addiction) have experienced cross addictions, the empirical evidence and research to back this concept are still pretty limited.

That being said, one study conducted in the early 1900s examined 1,000 people who were addicted to sex over a 5-year period. The findings of this study revealed that less than 13% of the participants were only addicted to sex, while the rest struggled with multiple addictions.

Another study conducted by the University of Michigan found that someone who struggled with alcohol addiction was 18 times more likely to develop an addiction to prescription drugs than someone who never struggled with alcohol addiction.

A separate study found that people struggling with active addiction are twice as likely to develop a second addiction compared to those who are in recovery. This research implies that once someone is in recovery, the likelihood of them developing another addiction is less than it is for someone who is in active addiction.

Examples of behavioral addictions

Whether someone is in active addiction or in recovery, they are at greater risk of developing a cross-addiction. Many cross-addictions appear in the form of behavioral addictions.

Below are some examples of behavioral addictions:

  • Gambling

  • Food

  • Sex

  • Shopping

  • Exercise

Knowing what some common behavioral addictions are can help you be more mindful of what activities you’re engaging in, and what those activities are doing for you, while in recovery.

behavioral addictions

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Why does cross-addiction happen?

There are many reasons why someone develops a cross-addiction.

Many times, people develop a cross-addiction accidentally. For example, they may gain sobriety from alcohol, get prescribed opiates after an accident ten years later, and quickly become addicted again.

If someone’s struggling with alcohol use and they’re offered cocaine at a party, they may engage in cocaine use and find it helps them stay awake to consume even more alcohol. They then begin using alcohol and cocaine simultaneously.

On the other hand, dealing with a stressful life situation could also prompt someone to backslide and develop a cross-addiction. Getting fired from a job or experiencing the death of a spouse, for instance, can be difficult or even traumatic experiences to go through.

Without the proper support and tools in place, dealing with a traumatic or stressful situation, regardless of how far you are into recovery, can cause you to struggle with feelings of depression and anxiety. Experiencing an inability to cope can cause you to inadvertently seek out behaviors, such as gambling, that provide you with a dopamine release and make you feel good, even if it's temporarily.

Finally, if you aren’t keeping tabs on your emotional well-being in recovery, this can lead you to develop a cross-addiction. One of the things that keeps an addiction alive is when you have trouble regulating your emotions, or a desire to escape or numb your emotions. If your emotional wellness begins to decline in recovery, and you aren’t taking the steps to increase it, you may be more susceptible to developing a cross-addiction.

6 tips for preventing cross-addiction

The good news is, cross-addiction is preventable. Below are 6 practical tips for preventing cross-addiction:

1. Check in with yourself

A foundational way to prevent cross-addiction from developing is by checking in with yourself. If you're aware of your thoughts and feelings, and able to regulate your emotions in a healthy way, you’ll be less likely to develop a cross-addiction.

If you've discovered coping strategies that work for you when life gets tough, and you implement them effectively, you’ll be less likely to develop a cross-addiction. If you're honest with yourself and vulnerable enough to admit if you're struggling and need help, then you won't experience a desire to seek something outside of yourself to escape difficult emotions or to push down pain.

Living your life on autopilot isn't going to cut it in recovery. You need to be conscious of how you're feeling and what's going on internally if you want to maintain a long-lasting, healthy recovery from addiction.

2. Stay connected to others

Having a support system is so important when it comes to maintaining your sobriety. Because of this, staying connected to others is a great way to help prevent cross-addiction from developing. When you surround yourself with people who accept you, support you, and truly want the best for you, you're able to lean on them if you're struggling. Having people in your life who know what you're going through can help you feel less isolated and alone.

You can also stay connected to others by joining a support group that aligns with your values. A support group is a great way to learn from other people who have been exactly where you are. Additionally, you can get help from a recovery coach or a sober companion, who not only understands what your experience of addiction is like, but also understands what it takes to get through recovery. No matter who you turn to, staying connected to others makes a huge difference in your healing journey and can help in preventing cross-addiction.

3. Educate yourself

Educating yourself on the causes of addiction and the way addiction rewires your brain can help you prevent cross-addiction from developing. Learning about the ins and outs of addiction can be as simple as typing up a quick Google search. There's so much information online and so many resources available to help you learn as much as you can about addiction.

Equipping yourself with knowledge can help you become more aware of the complexity of the recovery process. Understanding addiction, learning about what causes relapse, and learning about the many ways to cope with cravings and triggers can help you prevent cross-addiction and maintain sobriety.

4. Be Mindful

If you're in recovery, it's important to be mindful of the choices you’re making in life and whether those choices have the ability to deter your recovery efforts. For example, if you’re years into recovery from opiates and get prescribed painkillers for something from your doctor, you'll have to assess whether it would be a wise choice for you to take them.

If you struggled with alcohol addiction in the past and you find yourself going into the casino more and more often, you'll have to assess whether you may be slipping into an addictive behavior to help alleviate some kind of emotional pain you're trying to ignore or push down. Being mindful is going to help you tremendously when it comes to staying in recovery and preventing cross-addiction from developing.

5. Engage in hobbies and have fun

This may not seem so obvious, but it's so important to have fun in your recovery and to do things that light you up. Engaging in hobbies and things you're passionate about will help you feel good, and feeling good will help you prevent cross-addiction from developing.

A lot of people think recovery sounds like a death sentence, without realizing that true joy and fun are waiting for them on the other side of their addiction. There are so many ways to have fun in recovery, and figuring out what that looks like for you can help you prevent cross-addiction from developing.

6. Get help from a professional

Finally, a great way for preventing cross-addiction from developing is by getting help from a therapist, counselor, or recovery coach. Getting professional help from an unbiased third party can help you observe your own thoughts and feelings, and can help you regulate your emotions in a safe space.

It can help keep you accountable, and help you stay on track, regardless of how far into recovery you are. There's no way to have too much support in recovery, and getting help from a professional is an indispensable way to stay the course, maintain recovery, and prevent cross-addiction.

- David



Read more related articles from us on getting support in recovery from addiction:

David Marion, NCIP NCRC

Hi, I’m David Marion. I’m a Nationally Certified Recovery Coach, Sober Companion, Sober Escort, Nationally Certified Intervention Professional, Addiction Recovery Speaker, and Author of Addiction Rescue: The No-BS Guide to Recovery.

If you or your loved one is interested in working with a recovery coach to help prevent cross-addiction and stay on track, book a free call with me today.

Maintaining recovery is just as important as gaining recovery, and with the right help, you’ll be well on your way to a long-lasting, healthy recovery from addiction.


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