When you decide to go into treatment for an opiate use disorder, you are at risk for cross-addiction after opiate addiction. You can even develop another addiction at the same time as you are still fighting your initial addiction. Likewise, if you’ve been abusing weed or alcohol, you might realize that the lesser addiction has always been on your route to the one you’re now trying to kick.
All addictions set the brain’s reward pathway into motion, which is why some continue to use them. If you give up or cut back on one substance you’ve been abusing, then your brain will begin to look for something to take its place. The process of transferring your addiction from one substance to another is called cross-addiction. And it’s doesn’t always involve a substance.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse explains that the reward pathway involves three parts of the brain.
- The VTA is the ventral tegmental area. This area is awakened when the brain perceives a rewarding experience. Winning the lottery or simply having a great meal can trigger the VTA, so it goes without saying that drugs that make us feel good definitely do. A neurotransmitter called dopamine is released, and it travels to the next two parts.
- The nucleus acumbens can produce more dopamine. In fact, use of drugs often releases two to ten times the amount of dopamine than non-chemical events. The nucleus acumbens can also reduce the amount of serotonin that is produced. Seratonin is related to our ability to feel satisfied and maintain control, key elements in making healthy choices and controlling substance use.
- The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain used to decide whether to continue with drug use. A person may know the drug use is harmful and unwise, but lack of development in this part of the brain may stunt our ability to apply that knowledge.
That’s basically the reward pathway in a nutshell. There’s much more to it, of course; for example, drug use that begins in a person’s teen years can prevent the development of the prefrontal cortex. They may then never mature to the stage at which they make purposeful and wise decisions.
Becoming Susceptible to Cross-Addiction
What kind of cross-addiction might you experience after opiate addiction? Watch out for these common pitfalls:
- Caffeine and Nicotine. It used to be common for people attending 12-step meetings to chain-smoke and drink lots of coffee. Though less places allow smoking today, you’ll still find plenty of caffeine in group sessions and recovery meetings. Watch out, especially when you are alone, that your consumption of these stimulating products does not become excessive. Caffeine beyond 400 mg per day may not be safe, and certain energy drinks contain more than that in one 24-ounce serving. You already know, of course, the dangers of smoking.
- Overeating. It’s true that many people recovering from opiate addiction are advised to eat candy to help them with cravings. In fact, counselors have been known to keep a stockpile of chocolate bars in their desk drawers. The truth is that you are risking another serious cross-addiction with your opiate addiction treatment. While most people are underweight when they are in the throes of heroin or opiate addiction, you don’t want to gain weight too rapidly. You have to guard against a diet dominated by sugar, and you could be putting your dental health at risk.
- Exercise. This is one case when you really don’t want to overdo a good thing. Certainly exercise is beneficial when you’ve started the recovery process. It gets the body moving and it’s one of the natural ways we have of producing endorphins including dopamine. But some people become cross-addicted to exercise. You no longer focus on developing your strength but become obsessed with how many reps you can do or how far you can run. Before you know it, you will need to increase your regimen in order to enjoy it, and the risk of injury then increases. You will become tense and agitated if you miss exercise.
- Electronic addictions. You may find that you sit in front of the computer too much, can’t put down your smartphone, or continuously watch television. For some people, the cross-addiction involves videogames.
- Gambling. Winning at the wheel of fortune can be just as addictive as drugs or alcohol. While you work your recovery from opiate addiction, it’s wise to stay away from any kind of gambling or casino.
What Activities Can You Enjoy?
You can participate in just about any activity as long as you take it in moderation. That is really the key. When overused, things that seem harmless or even those that are good for you can become negative or cause problems. During opiate addiction treatment is a time when you want to guard against cross-addiction. Being aware that your brain will be craving stimulation of its reward pathway can reduce your risk of turning from one addiction to another. Once you seek opiate addiction treatment at your local methadone program, be sure to discuss the potential of cross-addiction with your counselor.