What is Addiction Transference and Why Does it Occur?

Lonely man drinking after addiction transference.

What is Addiction Transference and Why Does it Occur?

How exchanging one addictive substance or behavior for another can derail the recovery process.

Addiction is the continued use of a substance or behavior despite the potential for personal problems or negative consequences. A person with an addiction may want to stop, yet may struggle with doing so on their own. Addiction transference occurs when an individual exchanges one compulsive behavior for another compulsive behavior, such as when a former heroin addict is no longer using but instead is abusing alcohol in its former place. Addiction transference can refer to two or more addictions co-occurring at the same time or an individual being in recovery from one drug who then begins to use and becomes addicted to another drug [1]. These can include addictions to multiple substances or pleasure-inducing behaviors such as eating, sex, shopping, or gambling.

Why Does Addiction Transference Occur?

Addiction transference develops in people with past addiction trauma. There are many reasons why addiction transference can occur, although in many cases it may be accidental. For example, a person who has an ongoing addiction or history of addiction may be prescribed pain medication due to a medical procedure, and the euphoric, “high” feeling they get from the drug makes him or her susceptible to the continued use of the drug until it leads to increased use and eventually becomes an addiction. It is also possible for an addict to battle one addiction and overcome it, but years later develop another addiction that needs to be addressed as well [2].

A 2014 report in the Journal of American Medical Association – Psychiatry found the following:

  • People with active substance use disorders were about twice as likely to develop another substance use problem (27%) compared to individuals whose substance use disorder was in remission (13%).
  • Individuals who were unable to address their original substance use issue were more vulnerable to developing other substance use issues than individuals who were successful in addressing their substance use disorder [3].

Addiction Transfer and Untreated Mental Health Conditions

Another reason that addiction transference may develop is due to untreated mental health problems. As is often the case with addicts, a person suffering from trauma, anxiety, or depression may turn to drugs or alcohol as a means to help them cope with the negative thoughts or emotions they may be experiencing. If a person’s mental disorder remains untreated, they can continue to relapse again and again in many different forms until they receive proper treatment.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) in both group and individual settings has been shown to allow individuals to explore thought patterns and feelings that contribute to their substance use and compulsive behaviors. The underlying concept behind CBT is that thoughts and feelings play a fundamental role in affecting behavior. The goal of cognitive behavioral therapy is to teach people that while they cannot control every aspect of the world around them, they can take control of how they interpret, deal with, and cope with things in their environment. Additional counseling can also teach people how to prevent addictive behaviors by recognizing signs of destructive patterns of behavior or feelings.

Underlying Existing Addictions May Also Contribute to the Problem

Another common cause of addiction transference or cross-addiction is the lack of understanding or acceptance that another addiction even exists. While someone might be aware that they have an addiction to one thing, they may not realize that they can also possibly have an addiction to another substance, activity, or behavior. Those with cross-addictions turn to new substances to fill the void left when they stop using a substance they have been abusing [4]. Cross-addictions such as marijuana and opioids, opioids and alcohol, and cocaine and ADHD medications are common among people with substance use disorders.

Related post: What is Polysubstance Abuse?

How Can Addiction Transference be Prevented?

The best way to prevent addiction transfer is by educating both yourself and others about the possibility of the condition. People in early recovery from alcohol and other drugs are also more susceptible to cross-addiction because their brains are still wired to receive the euphoric dopamine rush they got when they were using.

It is also important to be your own advocate when healthcare decisions are involved. Informing your doctor that you have or had an addiction to drugs or alcohol will help you both determine what, if any, addictive drugs you may be prescribed, or if there are other alternative medications with a lesser potential for addiction. Involving a trusted friend or family member to dispense your medication for you is another way to ensure that you are taking your medication exactly as prescribed.

Professional Help is Available

If you or a loved one is suffering from multiple substance use disorders, it is best to seek professional help. At Briarwood Detox Center, our licensed treatment professionals are trained to recognize and treat the symptoms of alcohol and drug addiction and can provide 24/7 support and administer medication as needed to ensure your comfort and success in detox.

Once you’ve completed an alcohol or drug detox program, the Briarwood staff will provide referrals to rehab programs that will give you the best chance at achieving sustained, long-term sobriety.

If you’re ready to get help with overcoming your alcohol or drug addiction/s, Briarwood offers alcohol and drug detox programs in Austin and Houston, Texas, and Colorado Springs, CO. Call (512) 580-3130 to speak with an admissions representative or contact us online today.


  1. Understanding Addiction Transference – Addiction Center
  2. The Challenge of Cross Addiction | Psychology Today
  3. Cross Addiction: What It Is & the Truths About It (americanaddictioncenters.org)
  4. Cross-Addiction: How to Avoid Replacing Alcohol With Another Addiction (alcoholicsanonymous.com)

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