Ask an Expert: I Quit Pot, But Now I'm Smoking More Than Ever

By Lance Dodes 11/08/16

Am I just replacing one addiction with another?

A hand crushing cigarettes
Don't pick up other habits.

I have recently stopped smoking pot entirely and I think I'm feeling better. But at the same time I am smoking more cigarettes than I used to- I'm up to a pack a day from 4 or 5. Also, I've started twirling my hair, absent-mindedly, something that I haven't done since I was a kid. It seems like they must be related but I don't feel like I'm missing the pot smoking so I'm not sure. Suggestions welcome about the cause and what I should do.

Lance Dodes, MD: The shift you describe from smoking pot to smoking cigarettes and twirling your hair are examples of a very common phenomenon: changing the focus of a compulsive action when one focus is stopped. For example, people regularly shift addictive (compulsive) use of one drug to a different drug, or from a drug addiction to a non-drug addiction like compulsive gambling or even compulsive housecleaning. The reason this seems strange is because we tend to think of addictions as being connected to the properties of drugs. But shifts like this tell us that what is important in addiction is the drive to perform a behavior that makes people feel less helpless in that situation, not the details of that behavior. Once we appreciate that addictions are neither more nor less than compulsions—intense drives to repeat a behavior—then it makes perfect sense that people can substitute non-drug compulsive behaviors for drug addictions. Knowing this allows a completely different way of treating addictions. Instead of focusing on drugs or their effects, we can focus on the circumstances that precipitate the emotional "solution" of performing a compulsive act. This makes it possible to predict when the next addictive urge will occur, and to be able to find a more useful and direct way to deal with the emotional issue instead of feeling compelled to repeat the addictive action.

Lance Dodes, M.D., is the author of Breaking Addiction; The Heart of Addiction; The Sober Truth and Asst. Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School (retired). Full bio.

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