cycle of addiction

Once an individual finds him or herself immersed in their addiction, they forget who they are and begin to narrowly define themselves as nothing more than an addict… Obtaining, using, and withdrawing becomes a daily ritual, and once this sequence is completed, they start the cycle all over again…”

~ Dr. D.A. Berberich, PhD, Out of the Rabbit Hole: Breaking the Cycle of Addiction

Understanding the Cycle of Addiction

The brain of an addicted person is physiologically and chemical different from that of a non-addicted person. This clearly demonstrates that addiction is a neurological disorder.

The addiction cycle is the process by which the addiction continually manifests in someone who is actively abusing alcohol, illicit drugs, or prescription medications. When that addiction cycle is broken and the person is living a healthier lifestyle, then they are in recovery.

Understanding how the cycle of addiction perpetuates is key to figuring out how to disrupt the cycle so that recovery can begin. Unfortunately, without outside intervention from professional counselors, doctors, and rehab programs, most addicts are unable to break addiction’s repetitive cycle.

The Definition of Addiction

The Definition of Addiction

Before one can understand the cycle of addiction, first addiction itself must be identified.

In terms of substance abuse, addiction is when a person obsessively thinks about and compulsively needs and seeks drugs or alcohol, in spite of negative consequences. It is characterized by:

  • Tolerance – the need for ever-increasing amounts of the substance to achieve the same effects
  • Withdrawal – uncomfortable and unpleasant symptoms resulting whenever the substance is discontinued
  • Physical Cravings – an intense desire to use or drink, and
  • Emotional Obsession – constantly thinking about acquiring and using drugs

Addiction exists on a continuum that gradually worsens over time:

  • Misuse – This is when a person experiments with drugs or alcohol recreationally, or uses those substances to ease physical or emotional pain. When they experience the temporary pleasurable effects of alcohol or drugs, they are motivated to use them again.
  • Abuse – This is when the person increases their drug and alcohol use in order to escape reality and prolong the desired euphoric effects.

Ironically, the problems from which they are trying to escape are still there. In fact, new problems invariably arise as a result of constant drug/alcohol usage.

This is the point at which a person becomes dependent upon the substance, and satisfying their craving starts to become their existence.

  • Addiction – By this time, the majority of the person’s time and effort is spent in the acquisition of more drugs or alcohol. Negative consequences start to appear in every area of their life –
    • Physical health – malnutrition, hepatitis, HIV, cirrhosis, etc.
    • Emotional – psychosis, anxiety, depression, etc.
    • Social – isolation, loss of interest in hobbies, relationship problems
    • Financial – money for necessities spent on drug/alcohol, disciplinary action at work
    • Legal – arrests, DUIs, public intoxication charges, fines, legal fees
    • Collateral damage – domestic violence, accidents, child abuse

Drugs and the Brain

Of all of the organs in the body, there is no denying that the human brain is the most complex. It is responsible for practically everything we do on a daily basis. It stores your memories, helps you drive a car, keeps you breathing and does so much more. Most of the actions your brain is responsible for are things you don’t even think about.

When drugs are introduced to the human brain, the effects are profound and dramatic. Your brain is made up of so many different parts. These parts all work together as a team. Drugs cause problems within the different parts of the brain. This means that you have the risk of losing many of the basic functions it’s responsible for.

When the brain isn’t able to communicate within the different parts, behaviors typically change. The brain is made up of billions of neurons, or nerve cells. Using drugs has a direct, negative impact on these cells. This impact results in different ways of thinking, feeling and behaving. This is exactly why drug addicts take risks, make poor decisions, and behave the way they do.

behaviors of an addict

Addictive behaviors can refer to any number of actions. Most people think of addictive behaviors as being related to the use of drugs and alcohol. However, they are actually so much more than that. Substance abuse is only one aspect of the behavioral component of addiction.

Research has shown that various behaviors can actually become addictive in nature as well. For instance, shopping, sex, the Internet and cell phone use can all be addictive. When these behaviors were studied, it was found that the brain exhibited significant changes. These changes were similar to those that were demonstrated by drug addicts and alcoholics.

There are several patterns of addictive behaviors, such as:

  • Not being able to stop
  • Easily relapsing
  • Losing control
  • Having a desire to use or act, but no pleasure
  • Having more than one addiction at once (cross-addiction)
  • Using substances or behaviors to self-medicate

Whether you are an alcoholic, or you’re addicted to sex, the problem is still the same. You are at risk of entering a dangerous addiction cycle.

The cycle of addiction definition indicates that it is an ongoing process. Generally, an addict begins using, decides to stop, and then relapses. This cycle happens over and over again.

There are several different addiction warning signs that you should be aware of. You may not even be sure that you have an addiction. These warning signs can give you an indication that something isn’t right.

If you wonder if you have an addiction, you may if you notice:

  • That when you want to stop using, you’re not able to
  • That you go through withdrawal when you stop using
  • That you continue to use even though you’re suffering from health problems
  • That you are making sacrifices in your relationships or social activities in order to use
  • That you are always careful to ensure you have drugs or alcohol on hand
  • That you take risks as a result of your behaviors or substance abuse
  • That you continually deny that you have a serious problem
  • That you are obsessed with using substances or participating in the compulsive behavior
  • That you have become isolated from the people you love the most
  • That you center your entire life around the focus of your addiction
  • That you don’t feel like yourself unless you’re using
  • That you continually use or act, even when you told yourself you wouldn’t

It’s definitely not always easy to recognize when you’re battling an addiction. However, once you notice some of the warning signs in your life, it becomes much easier.

If you do have an addiction, all hope is not lost. It’s never too late to recognize the cycle of addiction for what it is. If you’re struggling, you need to know that there’s something you can do about it. The right treatment can change everything for you. An addiction is hard, and recovery is hard. However, when you realize you have a problem, and you make the decision to change, it can be done.

The Seven Steps of the Cycle of Addiction

The Seven Steps of the Cycle of Addiction

The cycle of addiction has seven steps, that while distinct, may present variably for different users. For example, a person who abuses a substance daily may actually rotate through that cycle a number of times during the day, while a person who binges may move through the cycle at a different pace.

  1. Frustration/Pain – Substance-seeking as a means of relief 
  2. Fantasizing – Thinking about using/drinking
  3. Obsessing – Uncontrollably thinking about how it will feel after using/drinking
  4. Using/Drinking – Achieving relief for the pain or frustration
  5. Loss of Control – Inability to regulate frequency or amount of use
  6. Dissatisfaction – Feelings of remorse, shame, and guilt for using/drinking
  7. Promising to Quit – Resolving “never again”

Unfortunately, this proves to be an empty promise, because when the emotional or physical pain/frustration turns, the addicted person began to re-experience the fantasies of relieving their pain with alcohol or drugs.

breaking the cycle of addiction

How to Break the Cycle of Addiction

The cycle of addiction is broken when the addicted person becomes abstinent and makes lifestyle changes that substitute dysfunctional, self-destructive behaviors for healthier, productive. Here are the stages of readiness for that change:

  • Pre-Contemplation – At this point, the addict has not even considered stopping drinking or using.
  • Contemplation – The addict begins to consider quitting.
  • Preparation – The addict begins to mentally prepare to quit using/drinking.
  • Action – The addict seeks treatment, begins counseling, or starts attending self-help/fellowship groups. At this point, the addict has stopped using.
  • Maintenance – Following your recovery program, the addict is now living a healthier, substance-free lifestyle.

One important thing to keep in mind is the fact that a relapse – a return to the cycle of addiction – can occur at any stage of recovery. This is why continuing aftercare (therapy) and ongoing support (self-help fellowship groups) is so important for successful, long-lasting recovery.

Ending the Cycle of Addiction

Above all, you would love nothing more than to end the cycle of addiction. That is our hope for you as well. The right treatment can make that possible for you.

Perhaps you have questions about the addiction cycle, and what that means for you. We’d love to help you understand it more fully. Please leave us a comment below, or contact us with your questions.

Addiction Treatment

Addiction Treatment

All types of addictions can be treated successfully. There actually aren’t any addictions that cannot be treated. This should give you some hope. You should know, however, that there are different ways to treat addiction. People are all very different, and they require different treatment approaches. This is how addiction treatment is the most successful.

The following are just some of the ways addiction can be treated:

  • Through inpatient rehab, which is a residential program that lasts about 30 days, in most cases. Inpatient rehab gives people time away from the stressors of their everyday lives. It allows them to focus completely on recovering.
  • Through counseling with a professional addiction therapist. Individual counseling sessions allow patients to work through the issues that led to their addictions.
  • Through dual diagnosis treatment, which is for patients with co-occurring disorders. These mental health conditions frequently contribute to addictions. They can make it very difficult to recover unless they’re addressed.
  • Through detoxification, which focuses on the physical component of the addiction. Detox helps with the withdrawal phase of recovery.
  • Through residential treatment, or long-term care. This allows patients more time to recover from their addictions. It is great for those with severe addictions. It can also be effective for those who are unable to return home because their home lives are dangerous.

The most effective treatment programs will combine psychosocial counseling, medication assistance, addiction education, treatment of co-occurring psychiatric disorders, peer group therapy, family/couples counseling, relapse prevention plans, and aftercare strategies.

When all of these weapons used to combat the disease of addiction are brought to bear, it empowers the patient to stay the course on their personal journey of recovery.

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Understanding the Cycle of Addiction

Understanding the Cycle of Addiction
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By |2018-11-15T16:34:39+00:00October 23rd, 2016|

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Northpoint Recovery
Northpoint Recovery is the premier drug and alcohol rehab, detox, and treatment facility in the Northwestern United States.

3 Comments

  1. 5 Signs You're Really Ready to Get Sober November 20, 2016 at 12:55 pm - Reply

    […] how can you REALLY know if you are finally ready to put aside the drugs and the alcohol and the dysfunctional behaviors and get clean and sober ONCE AND FOR […]

  2. Kay E. Whitehead MSW. May 16, 2018 at 6:45 pm - Reply

    Really nice definition of the cycle of addiction! And great info graphic as well!

    • Northpoint Recovery
      Northpoint Recovery May 25, 2018 at 4:35 pm - Reply

      So glad that this article resonated with you.

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