What Is Addiction Transference?

Addiction transference, also known as a cross addiction, is when a person has an addiction to two or more addictive substances or behaviors, which can include addictions to not only drugs and alcohol, but also gambling, sex, video games, food or other compulsive behaviors. 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 struggle doing so on their own.

Cross addictions do not necessarily have to occur simultaneously. For instance, someone may be in recovery from a drug addiction, such as opioids, and may even be clean for many years, but later develop an addiction to alcohol or engage in behaviors that may become compulsive. This triggers the brain’s dopamine reward center. People who have or have a history of one addiction have a higher propensity for developing a cross addiction. Addiction transference occurs when a person substitutes one addiction for another.

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How Does Addiction Transference Happen?

There are various reasons for why addiction transference develops; however, it is often accidental. For example, a person with an addiction or history of addiction may have surgery and be prescribed Percocet or Vicodin, and the euphoric feeling they get from the drug reinforces the continued use of the drug until it leads to increased use and eventually becomes an addiction. Another common cause of addiction transference or cross addiction is lack of understanding that another addiction exists. A person may be aware they have an addiction to a particular substance but may not realize they have an addiction to another substance or compulsive behavior, making it pertinent that individuals with a substance use disorder, or history of one, be aware of the risk of cross addiction.

Another reason addiction transference may occur is if someone has unresolved mental health issues, otherwise known as co-occurring disorders or dual diagnosis. A person with trauma, depression or anxiety may begin to use alcohol with other drugs as a way to comfort themselves. Cross addiction also occurs as an attempt to compensate for uncomfortable changes in behavior and routines, as well as due to emotions and thoughts that the person may struggle coping with. A common example is when a person recovering from an alcohol addiction begins gambling heavily. This can lead to financial stress and feelings of hopelessness. However, because of the compulsive nature of gambling and the reward of dopamine in the brain, the behavior continues as a way to cope.

How Common Is Addiction Transference?

According the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, there are approximately 21 million people age 12 or older who reported having a cross addiction. Many people do not seek help for their addiction due to not believing they can stop or not being ready to stop, while some do not believe they have a problem at all.

How Is Addiction Transference Treated?

Addiction transference is best treated at an addiction treatment center with the help of 12-step programs or other recovery support groups. There are many different types of support groups that focus on specific addictions, including specific drugs as well as compulsive behaviors, such as gambling, sex, or food. A good treatment program will further address any co-occurring mental health issues by implementing evidenced-based treatment modalities. There is also the benefit of medication-assisted treatment (MAT) for certain individuals.

If someone has a history of addiction, it is best to speak with a professional prior to the use of any prescribed medications that are considered addictive substances, such as opioids or benzodiazepines, due to the high risk of developing a cross addiction. If one must take addiction medications, having a family member dispense them may help reduce the risk of abusing them.

The best way to avoid a cross addiction from developing is by educating yourself and others. When a person is in early recovery from one addiction, they are more susceptible to developing a cross addiction because their brains are still seeking out the dopamine rush that they received when they were actively using. Despite this, it can still occur after many years of being in recovery. The best form of action is to be aware of the risks and take proper inventory of your behaviors to prevent developing a cross addiction.

Get Help Now

Perhaps you or someone you know is struggling with addiction transference. If you are unsure or feel you need help, do not be ashamed to reach out for help. Regardless of the circumstance, addiction help is available. Contact a treatment provider today who can assist you with finding treatment.

Last Updated:


Theresa Parisi, CAP

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  • Theresa Parisi is a Certified Addiction Professional (CAP), Certified Behavioral Health Case Manager (CBHCM), and International Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor (ICADC) with over 12 years of experience in the addiction treatment field.

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Certified Addiction Professional

Cindy Hardy