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The Addiction Cycle


Though the addiction cycle differs slightly depending on what type of addiction the individual faces, it is similar in that it repeats over and over until intervention and treatment occur.

Unless you have experienced addiction first-hand, it can be hard to truly understand that addiction is more than a bad habit. When it comes to the addiction cycle, many people think it is something you can simply abandon. To better understand the complexity of addiction, let’s examine what addiction is. The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) defines addiction as “a primary, chronic disease of the brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry.” Addiction is not something you “catch” from someone else, nor is it an acute condition that arises in a day. It is something that slowly progresses and often goes unnoticed. Like many other conditions, addiction occurs in stages. The repetition of these stages is often referred to as the addiction cycle.

Stages of the Addiction Cycle

Though the addiction cycle differs slightly depending on what type of addiction the individual faces, it is similar in that it repeats over and over until intervention and treatment occur. Those who haven’t experienced addiction may wonder why it is so hard to walk away from the substance, but what they may not realize is that addiction becomes harder to overcome with each stage of the cycle. The longer an individual has suffered from their addiction the more difficult it will be, emotionally, physically, spiritually, and psychologically, to give it up.

Stage 1: Initial Use

Most people don’t seek out addiction. Typically, addiction starts with an initial use of a substance like a prescribed medication driven by simple curiosity or peer-pressure, and some even fall prey to it by pure chance. Many people don’t realize the impact a first try or first use can have, and that it can spark the start of a terrible cycle. Whether or not the initial use becomes an addiction depends a lot on the individual, but there are various risk factors that can increase the probability of addiction. Some of these risk factors include:

  • Depression
  • Living conditions
  • Family history of substance abuse
  • Personal history of mental health disorders
  • Enabling peers or family members

Stage 2: Continued Use

When the use of the substance becomes more habitual than occasional, the second stage has begun. Some individuals enter this stage without a developed dependence on the substance, meaning they can stop using the substance all on their own. A major risk that comes with the second stage is substance abuse, along with exhibiting behaviors such as unexplained violence, increased symptoms of depression, or driving while under the influence.

If you notice that you or a loved one is experiencing an increased consumption of a substance, or experiencing any of the above-mentioned behaviors, they may be on the verge of a substance abuse problem.

Stage 3: Abuse

When continued use persists despite knowledge of the consequences, the third stage has begun. Warning signs such as fantasizing about the use of the substance, obsession with the substance, craving, or irritability when the substance isn’t used are signs that addiction is just around the corner. During the third stage the brain makes drastic changes in its chemical makeup in response to the substance. These changes aide in developing a tolerance to the substance, meaning the substance no longer generates the same effects that it has till now. To overcome this, the user typically increases the amount of the substance they intake as well as the frequency it is used. Eventually the brain continues to develop a tolerance to the new levels until heavy use is established.

Stage 4: Dependence & Addiction

The increased use of the substance and the accompanying tolerance leads up to this final stage of the addiction cycle: dependence. This stage is characterized by the brain’s inability to function properly without use of the substance. Dependence often goes along with addiction and symptoms of withdrawal and obsessive use take part. Job security, relationships, personal finances, and mental and physical health are all effected in a negative way when the user becomes addicted to a substance.

As dependence becomes stronger the addicted individual will be willing to put in jeopardy their values and standards in order to satisfy their addiction. This can lead to greater signs of depression and mental instability.