The Addiction Cycle: What Is It, and How Do I Get Out?

What is the addiction cycle? It’s something most people in recovery go through, yet it’s not talked about enough. Though there are many kinds of addictions, each follow a consistent cycle that becomes increasingly difficult to overcome and break free of.  

In this blog, we’ll dive into the seven phases of addiction, explaining each, and provide some suggestions at the end for how to break the cycle and achieve successful long-term sobriety.

Phases of addiction

1. Initial use 

The reasons one might initially try a substance can vary greatly from mental health issues, a bad injury, peer pressure, or anything in between. Not everyone’s use will turn into an addiction, but factors that can put someone more at risk of developing one include: a family history of addiction or mental health disorders, trauma or abuse, lack of social inclusion, and starting to use early in life. 

2. Continued use / abuse 

This next phase comes when casual, controlled using continues and the person begins to use their chosen substance on a regular and harmful basis. The categorization of ‘abuse’ depends on which substance is being used, but it usually involves increasing the amount or regularly of intake – often to the point where it negatively impacts a person’s day to day life. Possible reasons for continued use may include a long prescription for painkillers after an injury or becoming closer with friends who like to party regularly. At this stage, many people are unaware that they have a problem and think they’re doing nothing wrong, not realizing that they’ve entered into a substance abuse cycle. 

3. Tolerance 

After taking said substance for a period of time, it can alter the brain and create a higher tolerance in the body. This means that the amount one consumed at the beginning of the addiction cycle is no longer sufficient to provide that same mental or physical effect, so the individual must increase the dosage or frequency of using to achieve that same result. This is a cycle in itself – tolerances increase, and so does the amount needed to take, pushing us down the rabbit hole of addiction to a dangerous place. Tolerance can also develop quickly, within hours or days, depending on the substance and biological factors like your metabolism. At this stage, the brain has been changed physiologically, usually involving a decrease in brain chemical production or a loss of brain chemical receptors. This sets one up for the next phases — dependence and addiction. 

4. Dependence 

At this point, your body is so used to consuming your chosen substance that it requires it to function properly. There is even a condition known as anhedonia, in which someone with a long history of cocaine or meth use can no longer feel pleasure without using the drug. 

Dependence can also be found in the relief that a substance provides. For example, if someone is binge drinking to numb the dysfunctional family issues they are experiencing at home, they now depend on alcohol as a coping mechanism. Giving it up would not only be a challenge on its own, but the person would then have to confront their original problems at home that had been left unattended and unresolved. 

5. Addiction 

With a heavy dependence on a given substance, you’ve likely arrived at the point of addiction. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) (link), there are 11 signs and symptoms of substance use disorders like addiction. Some are: being unable to stop using, craving the substance, experiencing relationship problems based on use, continuing to use despite negative health effects, and experiencing withdrawal symptoms when stopping use. 

6. Withdrawal 

When trying to stop using a substance after experiencing active addiction, there are withdrawal symptoms. These can include: fatigue, irritability, nausea, and anxiety. It also depends on your drug of choice, how severe and long your addiction was, and your personal biological make-up. 

7. Relapse 

Addiction is a chronic condition. Maybe the withdrawal symptoms feel too overwhelming, and you want some relief. Or maybe it’s been a few weeks, months, or even years of being sober, and you start to think that you’ve conquered the disease and you could safely drink again in a controlled manner. However, as is true of all chronic conditions, there is always the potential to relapse — and it is very common in individuals with addictions. Maybe you stop attending your 12-step meeting, or start hanging out with old friends who use, or just want to have “one drink”. Relapse is not failure, but rather an indication that your treatment plan is no longer working and needs to be re-adjusted. 

How to break the cycle

The key to breaking the cycle is developing a realistic, comprehensive, and personalized treatment plan that ensures your needs are met and you are receiving the support you need to stay sober. This often involves attending regular 12-step meetings (see Avalon’s options here) and finding professional guidance through a counsellor, therapist, or addiction coach.  Avalon is here to help set you up for success in your recovery and to provide you with support and services that aid in your recovery – whether that be booking you free counselling sessions, providing you with educational materials, or simply being there for you in times of need.  Contact your local Centre Manager for more information. 

Other than finding external help, you must have an unwavering commitment to your own sobriety and prioritize it above all else. Take the necessary time for self-reflection and identify your own problematic behaviour, bad habits, and triggering people or environments. Likewise, think about what self-care practices or activities bring you joy and fulfillment away from using. It can take time, but the goal is to build a happy, healthy, and stable life in which your addiction has no opportunity to rear its head. 


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