About the Cycle of Addiction

The Cycle of AddictionAn immeasurable amount of research has shown that substance addiction affects the brain at a neurological level. When this happens, the chemistry in your brain is altered and the cycle of addiction is set into motion. This cycle is perpetuated by your addiction’s physical, psychological and emotional power over you and can continue endlessly until some sort of intervention stops it in its tracks. This is because, even if you understand the cycle of addiction, you won’t be able to successfully break the cycle until you get help to do so.

What Defines Addiction?

Addiction is typically described in different ways depending on who you ask. However, it is probably most accurately defined by the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) as a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. Treating addiction as a neurological disorder rather than the result of poor habits is critical to understanding how it develops and what the recovery process entails.

Like many chronic diseases, addiction is not a condition that develops overnight. In fact, addiction is well-known for developing slowly and perhaps even unnoticed over time. In some cases, substance users are completely caught off guard when they realize that their habits of imbibing have grown into a heavy dependence. Overall, the process of developing an addiction happens in stages just like any other chronic condition. The main difference is that the cycle of ailment, treatment, and relapse seems to be much more prominent and recurring in cases of substance addiction.

Stages of the Cycle

Most models that illustrate the cycle of addiction show it as being comprised of four stages: experimentation, regular use, abuse, and finally, addiction. Each stage is made up of different steps in addiction development, ranging from first use to relapse.

Stage One: Experimentation

First Use

Not all addiction begins with a lapse of judgment. Addiction is normally thought of as a consequence of illicit drug use, but in reality, this is only half true. Addiction can rear its ugly head in response to something as non-threatening as prescription pain medication, as harmless as a first drink at 21, or as thoughtless as a peer-pressured first hit. It doesn’t really matter how or why the initial use occurs it’s always the first step toward what could potentially become a merciless addiction.

Risk Factors

Whether or not the initial use of a substance leads to the development of addiction usually depends on the user. Research has shown that there are a number of risk factors that may contribute to an individual’s likelihood of developing an addiction, such as:

These risk factors, while definitely red flags to look for, are not a guarantee that high-risk substance users will fall into a cycle of addiction. Still, if you use substances and are at risk of any of the factors listed above, consider speaking to a professional before addiction has a chance to develop. Addressing the problem early may stop the cycle before it has the chance to really start.

Stage Two: Regular Use

Continued Use

Making a habit out of using your substance of choice marks the next stage of the cycle of addiction. For the most part, a person’s continued use of a substance is obvious. However, isn’t always viewed as a budding issue. This is especially true for people who take prescription medication; their continued use of something provided to them by doctors would not be viewed as unusual since they have prescriptions that might require refills.

For individuals that just recently started experimenting with substances like 21-year-olds who started drinking alcohol, for example, it’s clear that their continued use revolves around the pleasure they get from it. It’s instances like this that you should be especially wary of. If you find yourself drinking or using prescription drugs more frequently than what is deemed appropriate, you could be on the cusp of developing a substance abuse problem? the harbinger of addiction.

Stage Three: Abuse


Continued use of a substance, illicit or otherwise, can trigger changes in the brain’s chemical balances that result in the development of tolerance. This effect renders the original dosage of the substance unable to produce the same effects as it once did. As a result, the user takes more of the substance and/or takes it more frequently in an attempt to recapture the desired results. Over time, tolerance will continue to build with each new dosage until the user falls into a pattern of heavy substance abuse.


The third stage of the addiction cycle marks the start of substance abuse. The distinction between continued use and substance abuse is that the former is often restricted by certain parameters (i.e. taking medication, drinking in social settings, etc.). The latter, on the other hand, is defined as the use of a substance in a way that is harmful.

For example, if an individual on prescription painkiller medication decides to increase his dosage without consulting his doctor first self-medicating this would be considered substance abuse. Another example would be if a person who use to only engage in social drinking started consuming considerable amounts of alcohol every day, to the point where it started to interfere with her daily routine, as her job.

Whether or not a user’s habits qualify as abuse usually depends on the substance itself and how it affects the mind and/or the body. The examples mentioned above would undoubtedly be considered substance abuse since both situations result in the person using the substance for euphoric feeling it evokes rather than for its intended purpose. With illicit drugs like heroin or methamphetamine, however, abuse occurs the moment you use the drug for the first time.

As tolerance continues to build, the user’s brain will constantly adjust and change how it responds to the substance. The exponential increase of both abuse and tolerance will inevitably lead to the next stage in the cycle of addiction: dependence.

Stage Four: Addiction


Following substance abuse, there is the growing potential for users to develop what is called dependence. This simply means that the user’s body and/or brain can no longer function properly without the substance. Dependence is not always considered addiction, however. For example, if a patient in the hospital is on life-saving medication, he or she is dependent on that medication for survival.

In cases of drug and alcohol abuse, dependence refers to the point at which users rely on a substance to either feel normal or feel good. So, unlike a patient in a hospital, a user who routinely uses a substance for more than its intended purpose (i.e. to get high) is at risk of a budding dependence that may very well lead to addiction.


Addiction, contrary to popular misconception, is a kind of chronic mental health disorder. It is classified as a mental health disorder due to the chemical imbalances in the brain that result from regular substance abuse. Now, recognizing the signs of substance abuse is difficult enough how can you tell if you’re in the midst of developing an addiction? According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), there are a number of red flags to look for when determining the extent of your substance use and potential for addiction. These signs include:

  • Overuse of the substance
  • Regular cravings for the substance
  • Inability to stop using the substance
  • Relationship problems stemming from substance use
  • Slacking on daily responsibilities as a result of substance use
  • Reducing participation in favorite activities in favor of substance use
  • Spending an excess of time using or looking for more of the substance
  • Continued use of the substance despite its negative impact on health
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when attempting to quit using the substance
  • Using the substance in risky situations (i.e. while driving, operating machinery, at work, etc.)
  • Developing a strong tolerance for the substance (i.e. stage three of four in the cycle of addiction)

Generally speaking, if you experience two or three of these symptoms, this might indicate the development of a mild substance use disorder. The diagnosis of a moderate substance use disorder would be the result four or five of these symptoms. Finally, if you are prone to six or more of the symptoms, this indicates a more severe substance use disorder addiction.


The cycle of addiction continues with the onset of withdrawal symptoms. Does withdrawal develop as a result of the brain’s chemicals scale being tipped to accommodate the presence of a substance in the user’s system? As previously mentioned, withdrawal compromises the brain’s ability to regulate the body’s functions without drugs or alcohol. As a result, the user will experience a variety of symptoms ranging from mild discomfort to unbearable misery during any attempt at stopping the substance abuse. Without professional help, this could undoubtedly lead to relapse.


Relapse, a potential outcome in the battle against any chronic condition, is the point at which the cycle of addiction repeats itself. In the case of substance addiction, relapse usually happens in response to one of two situations: either the user cannot handle the withdrawal symptoms during abstinence or falls back into substance use as the result of a trigger.

Unfortunately, relapse rates for addiction, as reported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), fall anywhere between 40% and 60%. However, it’s important to remember that relapsing is not a failure. It really only means that your method of quitting drugs or alcohol needs to be adjusted. If quitting at home isn’t working, it’s time to seek help to avoid future relapse.

Characteristics of the Cycle

There are a lot of chaotic thoughts and feelings that a user might experience during the cycle of addiction. This can include, but is not limited to:

  • Fantasies about drug or alcohol use
  • Obsessive actions or behaviors
  • Loss of control
  • Dissatisfaction
  • Frustration
  • Remorse
  • Anxiety
  • Shame
  • Guilt
  • All in all, the cycle of addiction is an experience that only serves to harm your health, your mentality and your self-perception.