Transfer Addictions Happen: Here’s How One Happened for Me

Once I no longer felt compelled to go to the gym first thing in the morning – and once I could get through the day with one workout instead of two or more – I assumed I’d licked my addiction to exercise. How else would I have been able to devote 10- to 14-hour-days to writing a book, catching up on graduate school assignments, responding to tiresome networking e-mails, and throwing myself into all things work-related?

Surely I’d found a way to function that wasn’t entirely dictated by exercise. So didn’t that mean the problem was solved?

Unfortunately, while many of my exercise addiction symptoms abated, the willful illusion that I was “totally fine” quickly became clouded by the realization that the obsessive drive I’d devoted to working out was simply shunted toward whatever I could consider “work.”

Work addiction – also called workaholism – is thought to afflict 5% to 10% of the American population. Its prevalence tends to be highest among lawyers, doctors, and (who knew!?) psychologists. Its damaging effects upon physical and psychological well-being seem to be even worse than those resulting from excessive or compulsive exercise. Think not only strained relationships at work and at home, but also sleep problems, exhaustion, a much higher risk of “burnout,” anxiety, depression, weight gain and high blood pressure.

Researchers (tentatively, because there’s a need for much more data here) estimate that 20% of workaholics are also addicted to other behaviors. Compare this to the 15% to 25% of exercise addicts assumed (by the same researchers) to grapple with substance misuse disorders or behavioral addictions apart from overdoing it at the gym.

My leap-frogging from one addictive behavior to another is a clear illustration of transfer addiction. Also known in the psych literature as “cross-addiction” or “substitute addiction,” transfer addictions are not at all uncommon in the recovery process.

Often, an underlying behavioral or mood disorder is to blame for a person’s hopping from one vice to another throughout the course of his or her life. Personality disorders are particularly common amongst addicts. One large-scale study estimated that two out of three outpatients seeking treatment for a substance misuse disorder met the criteria for at least one personality disorder, the most common being antisocial and borderline personality disorders. Another study found that 20% of individuals who sought treatment for an alcohol or drug use issue within the past year had an independent (i.e., underlying/not caused by substance use) mood disorder, while almost 18% had an anxiety disorder.

Personality and mood disorders are also correlated with behavioral addictions. Around 60% of compulsive buyers examined in one study met the criteria for a personality disorder – obsessive-compulsive (22%), avoidant (15%), and borderline personality disorder (15%) being the most common. Rates of depression and bipolar disorder were also higher than average among compulsive buyers.

All this being said, transfer addictions may not be bad news in every instance. (And not every substitute “vice” is as bad as the one it replaces.) Consider the proposition of psychologists Steven Sussman and David S. Black who argue that recovering addicts may need to latch themselves onto behaviors or processes that offer similar – albeit less harmful – sensations of escape, preoccupation, relaxation, or dependence, as they gradually wean themselves off of addiction. (Or, at the very least, downgrade the damage they’re doing to themselves and those around them.)

The relative risk of a transfer addiction thus appears to be predicated on whether it’s an off-ramp from a more harmful addiction or whether it inflames, adds to, or equals the damage caused by the previous addiction.

On a personal level, I can’t say that my workaholism was healthy. If anything, it led to me relapsing with exercise addiction, negatively impacted my personal relationships, and added (immensely) to my stress, depression and anxiety.

Nevertheless, adhering so stringently to work – for a while, at least – enabled me to realize that I could live without the rigor of three daily workouts, pummeling my body into an unsustainable (and unhealthy) shape, and revolving my every waking hour around what I was doing at the gym.

My challenge – as is the challenge of most humans and especially those prone to addiction – is to know when I’m losing control. Certainly, when I’m trying to avoid facing my underlying emotional issues (i.e., the internal chaos and internalized self-hatred that fuels my adoption of various compulsive behaviors), such awareness is difficult to achieve. But having a smart therapist and network of supporters who can, without shaming me, call my attention to apparent behavioral excesses helps so much.

Mastering the art of moderation by tapping into my intuitive sense of when enough has become enough is an ongoing, possibly eternally challenging process. But it’s definitely not insurmountable. The perseverance in tackling this challenge head on each day is what I see as my own recovery. And I imagine it’s no different for folks in recovery from any addiction – substance-related and/or behavioral alike.

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