Study: Recovered Addicts at Lower Risk for New Addiction

There is an inherent assumption by many that if you’re addicted to one drug, even if you get better, you’re likely to switch over to another. It’s a pretty disheartening concept for those struggling to overcome an addiction, making one think that, even if their treatment is successful, they just might become addicted to another drug or behavior. Now a new study has investigated this hypothesis and come to the conclusion that overcoming a drug addiction actually reduces the risk for a new addiction.

Is the Drug Substitution Hypothesis True?

The researchers used data from a nationally representative sample of more than 34,600 adults to determine whether overcoming one substance addiction increases the risk of developing a new substance addiction after three years. The data was taken from the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions, with participants being interviewed from 2001 to 2002 and 2004 to 2005. They also looked into whether sociodemographic characteristics and psychiatric disorders predicted new addictions. From the entire sample, they found 3,275 participants with an addiction at the first interview who did not recover by the second meeting and 2,741 who had an addiction at the first interview but who had recovered by the second. At the follow-up, around 20 percent of the sample had developed a new addiction. The main finding from the research was that those who’d overcome a drug addiction in the three years between the two interviews were significantly less likely to develop a new substance addiction than those who didn’t overcome their addiction (13 percent of those who recovered vs. 27 percent of those who didn’t). This led authors to conclude that the risk of developing a new addiction is cut by more than half among those who recover in comparison to those who don’t. The age at which the individual started using substances and the presence of another psychiatric condition increased the odds of developing a new addiction.

Re-Evaluating Ideas About Addiction

Senior author of the study Dr. Mark Olfson commented: “The results are surprising. They cut against conventional clinical lore, which holds that people who stop one addiction are at increased risk of picking up a new one. The results challenge the old stereotype that people switch or substitute addictions but never truly overcome them.” This alternative viewpoint is valuable for recovering addicts in many ways but could notably impact how society sees those struggling with addiction. Rather than persisting in the assumption that recovered drug users are one street-corner offer of substances away from returning to their old ways, people may begin to understand the hard work that goes into achieving sobriety and how those lessons really do last.

Offering Further Hope for People in Addiction Treatment

The biggest benefit of the finding to those in addiction treatment is that it provides a solid reason to be hopeful about the outcome of efforts to get clean. Olaya Garcia-Rodriguez, a professor in the department of psychology at the University of Oviedo in Spain (who was not involved with the study), offered an explanation for the findings: “To achieve remission, most individuals need to make changes in their lifestyle and learn strategies to avoid substance use that will eventually protect against the onset of new addictions.” This is the key take-away message: the skills and strategies you learn in rehab stay with you and give you strength after treatment has finished, and the continued implementation of these skills is what keeps ex-addicts from developing new addictions. The lifestyle changes you make and the self-understanding you gain serve to protect you from running into the same issues in future. Olfson offers a similar sentiment but tempered with an important dose of realism. “While it would be foolish to assume that people who quit one drug have no risk of becoming addicted to another drug, the new results should give encouragement to people who succeed in overcoming an addiction.” Of course, it’s possible for you to develop a new addiction after recovery (as 13 percent of those in the study did), but the research offers a strong message of hope nonetheless. If you go through recovery and overcome your addiction, all you have to do is remember and implement the lessons you learned and you’re much less likely to find yourself switching to another substance a few years down the line.

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