Addiction Transference: What It Is and Why It Matters

Addiction Transference:

Contrary to what most people think, quitting a substance you’re addicted to may not be the hardest part.

Because your underlying brain biology (not to mention the resulting f$*cked up brain chemistry) doesn't change when you stop using something you’re hooked on. Because that addiction, well, it can transfer.

The technical term for this is called “addiction transference.”

Addiction wreaks havoc on the reward centres of your brain... Overtime, your reward brain chemical (i.e. dopamine) only squirts into your synapses in response to the substance you’re addicted to.

Addiction wreaks havoc on the reward centres of your brain (namely your prefrontal cortex, amygdala and nucleus accumbens). Overtime, your reward brain chemical (i.e. dopamine) only squirts into your synapses in response to the substance you’re addicted to. So, why would we think this new addicted brain biology changes or goes away just because we quit an addiction?

I think those struggling with addiction, as well as their friends and family, and their healthcare providers just pray and hope the addicted brain biology goes away. But the brain has an extremely intricate biology and chemistry, and this NEEDS to be considered in recovery. I am hopeful, as more people are starting to recognize and respect addiction as a brain disorder.

What I’ve seen over the years with clients is that the addiction often does transfer. And it usually (but not always) transfers to food. The underlying brain biology and chemistry of reward and feeding are highly interconnected and overlapping.

What I’ve seen over the years with clients is that the addiction often does transfer. And it usually (but not always) transfers to food. The underlying brain biology and chemistry of reward and feeding are highly interconnected and overlapping, so it makes perfect sense from a neuroscience perspective that this would happen. What didn’t make sense to me, from a human perspective (and what probably has you going “what!?!” right now), is why I should care about this transference — I mean, isn’t food the lesser of the evils vs. alcohol or drugs?

Many years ago, I didn’t think food addiction was real (and, to be perfectly honest, I thought it was kind of a joke). When I started seeing research suggesting that food addiction may be a thing, I thought that food addiction was way better than alcoholism or drug addiction. I started attending open AA and NA meetings with clients and witnessing the donuts and cookies enthusiastically brought out and being encouraged at meetings. I actually started to think that processed, junk foods were something I should support and encourage during addiction recovery. It made people happy, it made their eyes (and brains, hello dear dopamine again) light up to something other than alcohol or drugs.

I hadn’t even heard of “addiction transference” when I started seeing clients 7 years ago. So I had a pretty rude, and humbling, awakening when I met one of my first clients, “Terra” (name changed for anonymity).

Terra was/is/always will be a recovering alcoholic. She struggled to get off booze and was sober for 5 years when I met her. She was also 500 lbs, had type 2 diabetes and hypothyroidism, and suffered from depression and anxiety. She had also lost her home to a fast food addiction. She (and I, as I sat dumbfounded at our first visit) couldn’t understand how all these health and life problems had happened to her SINCE she had quit drinking! She said that she thought stopping drinking would be the hardest thing she would ever have to go through, and that all this made her feel like she just wanted to drink again. I’m happy to report she did NOT start drinking and we got her health back on track, too, after some dedicated work together.

Having Terra as a client threw the then-naive me into the world of addiction transference and food addiction, and I have seen it in almost every client we work with who is in recovery. Her story, and countless other stories of my clients, has taught me so much about why we need to take addiction transference and food addiction seriously.

It’s real. It’s not a joke. And we need to try to address it rather than just turning a blind eye on to it (or worse, encouraging it). Because people’s physical and mental health, and their successful and continued sobriety, often depends on it.

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