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The Cycle of Addiction


For those on the outside looking in, it can be difficult to understand addiction. That’s why it is so important for everyone who is supporting a loved one struggling with drug or alcohol dependence to understand the cycle of addiction.

One of the most common misconceptions is that addiction only happens to certain types of people or personalities. And while it is true that some people may be predisposed to addiction, the reality is people from all walks of life struggle with the disease.

Before you can help yourself or someone else struggling with addiction, you need to understand how the disease presents and progresses. Let’s take a look at the stages of addiction:

  1. Initial use – Sometimes a person is first exposed to an addictive substance though necessary and normal reasons like pain medications for an injury. Or maybe they had a drink or two for a friend’s birthday. Sometimes it’s darker and an individual is pressured into trying illicit drugs. Regardless of how or why someone is first exposed, individual circumstances are the greatest indicator of who is at higher risk for addiction.Someone who struggles with one or more of the following is generally more likely to become addicted to drugs or alcohol:
    1. Family history of addiction
    2. Chaotic or unstable home life
    3. Depression or social struggles
    4. Abuse or neglect
    5. Friends who use drugs

Like mentioned previously, while some people’s circumstances may make them more susceptible to addiction, addiction can affect anyone. We encourage you to use the above list with discretion. Just because someone doesn’t necessarily fit the list, doesn’t mean they aren’t in the early stages of addiction.

  1. Abuse – This is the stage when drug use moves beyond necessary or “social” and into improper and excessive use. For example, a person who suffers with pain from an old injury may suddenly find themselves over medicating and entirely dependant. It may be when someone who was a social drinker is suddenly drinking to excess several times a week or even daily. And just a one-time or occasional use of illicit drugs is considered abuse.
  1. Tolerance – When someone begins abusing, their brain begins to change and their body builds a tolerance. This often means a person will take/drink more and more in order to achieve the desired effect. It may even lead a person to try more dangerous drugs just to achieve the same high. Over time the changes to brain chemistry cause a person to not only progress to heavy substance abuse, but to a place of dependency.
  1. Dependence – Over time the use of drugs or alcohol changes brain chemistry to the point where a person’s body is no longer producing its own natural hormones or neurotransmitters, and their brain/body becomes dependent on the drug just to function.
  1. Addiction – Once a person has reached dependency on a drug they are officially in the throes of addiction. Defied as a chronic mental health disorder, there are 11 signs and symptoms used to diagnose or identify addiction.
    1. Inability to stop using the substance
    2. Using more than was originally prescribed or planned
    3. Withdrawing participation from things the person previously loved
    4. Spending large amounts of time and money tracking down drug(s)
    5. Relationship troubles resulting from substance abuse
    6. Craving the substance
    7. Developing a tolerance
    8. Failing to keep up with basic responsibilities, even personal hygiene
    9. Using in dangerous situations
    10. Experiencing withdrawal symptoms

When someone reaches this point, they aren’t in control of the diseases and he or she needs support and rehab. Addiction at this stage is a slippery slope – people usually start by experiencing 2-3 of these symptoms and still feel in control. But the illusion of control is very dangerous, and generally leads people deeper until they struggle with six or more of these symptoms. At that point they are considered to have severe substance use disorder or addiction.

If you or a loved one is struggling with drug use or addiction, seek help. The most important thing you can do is interrupt the cycle. There are so many proven types of intervention, so find a professional who can offer a variety of treatments like peer group support, cognitive and behavioral therapies, and other physical/mental health treatments to help you or your loved one develop tools and skills for taking back control. Without these tools and support, people are much more likely to relapse. And while relapse is common and many addicts go through it, the right treatments and support makes it possible to break free of the addiction cycle.

Related: Stages of Addiction