It’s not uncommon for people recovering from substance abuse to substitute an addiction with other vices or behavioral addictions. People can become addicted to different substances, and various behaviors are likewise addictive.

The reality is that some people will become addicted to substances, while most people will not. This begs the question of why some individuals struggle with addiction when others don’t. Moreover, how do people become addicted to one thing over another? And could an addicted person simply substitute the object of their addiction with something else?

Despite decades of continuous research concerning the nature of addiction, it’s still a very complicated and puzzling disease. We may understand many of the effects that addictive substances and behaviors have on the brain. However, we’re still learning exactly how addiction develops and the factors that can make some individuals susceptible to the development of chemical or behavioral dependency.

The disease of addiction is often used to refer to all the many types of addiction that exist. It includes the more widely known ones, such as those involving alcohol and drugs, to those that are somewhat less understood, such as food or exercise addiction. 

Moreover, many have heard some individuals described as having an “addictive personality,” which would seem to indicate when a person could potentially develop obsessive attachments to almost anything.

Does a person’s individual circumstances determine what they are addicted to, or is a person’s addiction arbitrary and interchangeable? In other words, is substituting addiction possible?

Do All Addictions Work the Same?

In determining whether each chemical and behavioral addiction has the same or similar effects on one’s physiology, it’s important first to define addiction. According to doctors and other clinicians, the root of addiction lies in one’s brain chemistry, which, in turn, is guided by an individual’s genetics, psychological development, and their experiences throughout life.

In other words, addiction is a disease of the brain that occurs due to genetic, developmental, and environmental factors. Additionally, individuals who are in active addiction use a substance or behavior as a quick fix that allows them to ignore unpleasant thoughts or feelings. This effectively makes their realities something more palatable.

Although all individuals behave in this way at times, only addicted people compulsively seek their “quick fix” in spite of the negative outcomes that inevitably follow. These include feeling physically ill the next day, harming others or their relationships, or possible legal troubles. In essence, the pursuit and abuse of chemicals or behaviors remains at the forefront of their daily life despite the damage these addictions cause.

Although virtually all addicted people have a drug of choice, when it comes down to it, they will usually abuse any substance if they can’t obtain the substance they prefer. The more convenient substance serves as a stand-in for the one they really want. However, it serves the same purpose while maybe not being as enjoyable as they had hoped.

Behavioral addictions such as gambling, sex, and food may not seem like they would produce the same effects as alcohol and heroin. But there are many similarities between these very different types of addiction. 

Individuals addicted to a certain behavior experience a boost in the same neurochemicals that spike when alcohol or narcotics is abused. This increase activates the reward and pleasure pathways of the brain and reinforces the behaviors.

It’s also been observed that individuals addicted to behaviors will develop a tolerance to those behaviors. However, those with behavioral addictions are often considered to be at an elevated risk for alcoholism and drug addiction since the abuse of those substances will offer them similar feelings as what they experience with the behaviors to which they are addicted.

The Addictive Personality

In the field of psychology, the term “addictive personality” is sometimes loosely used to refer to an individual who has shown a tendency to overindulge. It’s often said that someone who has an addictive personality becomes addicted after their first drink or the first dose of a drug because of the individual’s tendency to “overdo it” with anything pleasurable or enjoyable.

While this isn’t necessarily a clinical diagnosis, it’s become more commonly associated with individuals who are particularly susceptible to the development of addictions.

The idea is that a person with an addictive personality could become addicted to virtually any potentially addictive substance or behavior that they encounter. Whether they become addicted to one substance over another has to do with the individual’s particular circumstances and, as such, might indicate that substituting addiction would be possible for such a person.

Addiction Specificity and the PACE Model

So if the disease of addiction is—more or less—the same no matter the substance or behavior and one’s addiction could potentially be substituted with one of the numerous others, what causes an individual to become addicted to one thing over other substances and behaviors? The answer to this question could lie in a concept called addiction specificity.

According to recent research, addiction specificity refers to the phenomenon of an individual becoming chemically and psychologically dependent on one particular thing out of many things. It depends mostly on things like one’s environment, social history or background, and situational factors. 

The PACE model—which stands for pragmatics, attraction, communication, and expectation—was initially developed as a tool for analyzing relationships between literary characters. Now, it is also applied to the theory of addiction specificity, particularly concerning the various underlying processes that guide the initiation and maintenance of addictive behaviors.

In essence, it helps to explain what guides each person to their drug of choice versus the numerous others that were possible. Additionally, this can also serve as an indicator of which drugs or behaviors could replace one’s initial addiction since the replacement must provide comparable effects to those of the preferred addiction. 

In short, an individual substituting addiction would likely want a replacement substance or behavior that could serve the same purpose or purposes.