Many more addictions exist than just the most well-known ones to drugs and alcohol. People can also develop compulsive behaviors surrounding food, exercise, gambling, sex, internet usage, video gaming, and even incurring debt. Those in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction are susceptible to becoming addicted to other behaviors that don’t involve mind-altering substances.
Recovering drug addicts and alcoholics are still prone to chasing anything that provides a “spike” in brain activity. Drugs and alcohol stimulate the brain’s reward centers more than natural rewards such as food and sex can provide. Once a person stops taking drugs and alcohol, his or her brain is still wired to seek overstimulation. It is possible to stimulate the brain from natural rewards, but any excessive pursuit of such experiences can make a person’s life unmanageable, even though he or she is still sober.
Food. Eating food is rewarding: consumption of food releases dopamine in the brain’s reward pathway, creating sensations of pleasure in the brain. Food addiction is an addiction in and of itself. Certain people, even those who have never had drug or alcohol problems, can develop impulsive eating habits. Some food addicts will hide snacks around their house, in the same way alcoholics will hide bottles of liquor around their house. It is normal for many addicts and alcoholics to gain a little weight in recovery. A common joke among recovering heroin addicts is that they learn to “put down the spoon and pick up the fork.” Drugs and alcohol take priority over food, so once an individual quits taking drugs and alcohol; they tend to eat larger quantities of food more regularly. It is perfectly natural to derive pleasure from eating, but it is important not to take it to extremes. Monitor your eating habits in recovery closely. Failure to do so can result in dangerous weight gain, and all the health problems that accompany obesity.
Exercise. Exercise is healthy and recommended for everyone, in recovery or not. Thirty minutes of raising your heart rate every day can add years to your life. However, the sensation of a “runner’s high” from sustained cardiovascular exercise can turn into an addiction. A runner’s high activates the body’s natural opioid system. The sensations of pleasure following exercise are a natural reward form physical activity, but a few people can take this to unhealthy levels. Give your body time to rest and recover after a workout… most people generally require a “rest day” after a day of lifting weights. Excessive exercise can cause damage to muscle tissue, joints, and bones.
Sex, porn and masturbation. This is a big one… the sensation of pleasure from an orgasm is arguably the most powerful natural high. Many in recovery find their libidos returning. But it is important not to chase your rediscovered sexuality to the point of self-destruction. Relationships are dangerous enough for those in recovery, but throw in promiscuous sexual activity to the mix and you’re adding an entirely new world of dangers from diseases and the possibility of pregnancy. Porn and masturbation can make your life unmanageable too: the compulsion to watch porn and masturbate can interfere with going to work and life’s other responsibilities.
Gambling or debt. A compulsion to gamble or incur debt in spite of negative financial consequences can seriously disrupt a person’s life. Those who quit drugs and alcohol find themselves with more income once they’re not wasting it on booze and drugs anymore. It is important to not let this extra income become a trigger for developing other problems. Financial ruin can result from problem gambling, which can sometimes cause far greater economic damage than drugs and alcohol ever did.
Video games and internet usage. Internet addiction is a very real addiction: people can spend huge amounts of time online, chasing the “spike” in brain activity that surfing the web or viewing notifications from replies on message forums or blogs can provide. Video game addiction is also a proven real phenomenon. Video games can even swallow the lives of people who have never tried drugs or alcohol. Video games can be a fun reward for sober time, but if you find yourself spending hours a day on the computer or on consoles, you might be using them to escape reality, in much the same way that you used drugs or alcohol.
These are just a few of many examples of things that can become substitute addictions for those in recovery. Remember, in recovery, the idea is to recover from addiction, not to substitute your old addiction for a new one. Any addiction can make your life unmanageable. If you find yourself compulsively exhibiting any new behavior you think might become a problem, it’s important to ask for help about it. Drug and alcohol counselors are familiar with these non-drug related behaviors, as are the people you might meet at 12-step program meetings. They can offer you help leave addiction behind completely, instead of just finding something new to which to get addicted.