What Is Addiction Transference?

When a person addicted to a substance or behavior struggles to conquer that addiction, they may use another addictive substance or unhealthy behavior to help them cope with recovery from their first addiction. As a result, these two addictions “cross” or “transfer.” This phenomenon is called “addiction transference.”

The nature of addiction makes it an extremely common occurrence that can result in more harm than good or even turn one addiction into a combination of two or more simultaneous addictions.

In fact, this is why many addiction recovery programs request that their participants eliminate the use of all addictive substances rather than only one.

Examples of Addiction Transference

Maybe you’ve seen addiction transference occur in the real world in someone you’re close to. You don’t have to consider addictions only to drugs, alcohol, or smoking. Eating, extensive immersion into television or video games, or even some shopping habits can all be considered unhealthy behaviors with the potential for addiction.

Let’s look at few hypothetical scenarios:

Maybe you know a coworker who has been struggling to stop smoking. Over time, she’s discussed with you how she has cut back on how much she smokes throughout the day. She’ll do well for a little while and maybe not smoke for a couple of days at all, but then she’ll return once again to smoking a cigarette for relief.

Finally, she tells you, she has figured out a way to distract herself from smoking. Whenever she craves a cigarette, she says, she occupies herself by browsing the internet for shopping deals. As a result, she has incurred some significant debt on her credit card due to superfluous purchases.

In more serious cases, addiction transference can lead to major health complications and even death when the replacement addiction is something like drug addiction.

For instance, consider a friend who has been an alcoholic for years and is struggling to cut back on alcohol and then to eliminate his alcohol use entirely. However, his body is so dependent on the way that alcohol makes him feel that he experiences withdrawal symptoms when he stops drinking. He finds himself incredibly anxious, he shakes, and he can feel his heart racing.

Since opioids are also known to be a depressant like alcohol, a friend of his recommends that he use an opioid substance to calm his nerves and “replace” alcohol while he acclimates to not drinking. However, this person soon finds himself as addicted to the opioids as he was to alcohol.

While both of these examples are vastly different, they are both valid examples of addiction transference.

Treating Addiction Transference

Can addiction transference be treated? In some ways, yes. Given the wide variety of “transferals” that can happen, however, it’s understandable that a treatment plan will be unique to each individual situation.

Treatment with Healthy Distractions

For instance, during recovery from one addiction, a person can still take advantage of the “distraction” provided by another preoccupation. However, instead of indulging in too many sweets or in excessive shopping, a person can distract themselves from their addiction cravings with a healthy habit that will occupy their mind and fill their schedules.

A person could “transfer” from one addiction to fixating on a positive life change. They could decide to go back to school, learn a new language, begin planning out a small business idea, take up a new hobby like crochet or photography, or focus heavily on learning how to take care of their body with diet and exercise.

Sometimes, heavily attaching to a healthy area of distraction and focus can be enough to prevent relapse and encourage success.

Professional, Medical Treatment

In some cases, it’s not enough for someone struggling with addiction to distract themselves with positive life changes, and they may need to treat the possibility or existence of addiction transference by working carefully with a 12-step program, addiction recovery support group, or through Medication Assisted Treatment.

By working with professionals, an individual can find cohesive support both physically and mentally as they recover from addiction. In these treatment centers and programs, they will find the support and accountability they need in order to avoid addiction transference or to address it if it has already occurred.


In fact, we’d argue that the best way to treat addiction transference is with education and preparedness, both of which can be obtained from addiction recovery specialists and medical professionals. Asking friends and family for help is also encouraged, as they can assist in monitoring for damaging behaviors used as crutches.

Still, there is no replacement for advice from a medical professional, so don’t be afraid to reach out to a specialist for help if you have noticed any of these behaviors in yourself or in a loved one.


About the Author

Paula Nicola, M.D.
Dr. Nicola is the Facility Director at Renu. She is a trained and board certified medical doctor with specialized training in addiction medicine.

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