Substance Use

What Are the Stages of Addiction Cycle?

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What Is The Addiction Cycle?

Addiction is a physical dependence on a chemical substance. The dependence leads to unpleasant symptoms, called withdrawal when a person stops using the substance. People often begin using an addicting substance because it initially gives them pleasure. By the time addiction has developed, the pleasure is often gone. The driving force behind continued use is a need to avoid the unpleasant symptoms of withdrawal. (1)

The addiction cycle is used to help illustrate how quickly drug use can develop into addiction. It explains why it’s so difficult to simply quit using once a person is addicted to a drug. It is a complex process marked by a series of stages and behaviors that can have profound negative consequences on an individual’s life. 

It often begins with initial experimentation or recreational use, leading to continued and increasingly risky use. 

Signs of addiction may include:

  • Inability to control drug use
  • Prioritizing drug-seeking behaviors
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when not using the substance

As addiction progresses, individuals may find themselves trapped in a cycle of compulsive drug-seeking and use. 

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What Are the Stages of an Addiction Cycle?

Addiction is recognized as a chronic disease that affects the brain’s reward circuitry, making it challenging to break free from addictive behaviors without professional intervention and addiction recovery support. Breaking the addiction cycle often requires comprehensive treatment that addresses the physical, psychological, and social aspects of addiction, helping individuals reclaim their lives and achieve sustained recovery.

Navigating the complex subject of addiction requires an understanding of its cyclical nature, characterized by distinct stages that intertwine to perpetuate the cycle. Whether it’s substance abuse or other addictive behaviors, the journey from initial experimentation to full-blown dependency follows a predictable pattern.

Recognizing and comprehending these stages is essential for addicts, their loved ones, and healthcare professionals striving to provide effective support and intervention.

In this exploration of the stages of an addiction cycle, we delve into the intricate dynamics at play, shedding light on the progression of behaviors, emotions, and physiological changes that underpin the continuum of addiction.

The stages of the cycle include:

  • Drug use
  • Tolerance
  • Dependence
  • Addiction
  • Relapse

A person can break the cycle at any point, as long as they get the right help. Understanding the five stages of addiction recovery can also be helpful for addicted people and their family members.

Stage 1: Drug Use

The addiction cycle begins from the very first time a person uses a drug.

In this first stage, people often tell themselves that they’re just going to try it once to see what it feels like, especially if it’s a widely used drug like marijuana.

The reasons to experiment with drugs can vary widely, but two common reasons are because of either curiosity or peer pressure. People may also be prescribed medication, such as opioids, by their doctor.

Whether someone passes off drug use as experimentation or is using it recreationally as a means of enjoyment or escape, intentionally using a drug to achieve a euphoric “high” feeling is considered drug abuse from the very first instance.

No matter the reason, drug use can rapidly begin impacting the brain and body. With strong substances like fentanyl and heroin, a person can begin to feel addicted from the very first use.

Drug addiction is a chronic brain disease. It causes a person to take drugs repeatedly, despite the harm they cause. Repeated drug use can change the brain and lead to addiction.

The brain changes from addiction can be lasting, so drug addiction is considered a “relapsing” disease. This means that people in recovery are at risk of taking drugs again, even after years of not taking them. (2)

Stage 2: Tolerance

Each time you use a drug, chemical changes happen inside your brain. With each use, you may find that the effects of the drug feel a little more subdued. Regular use will cause a person to take more of the substance to continue feeling the same outcome, which feeds into the cycle.

Some people think they can avoid developing tolerance and addiction by cycling between many different substances, but that is not a strategy you should try on your own. Tolerance is complex and while doctors may use cycling to help improve the efficacy of a prescription medication, it’s not something a recreational user should attempt. (3)

Any drug with a similar mechanism of action that is chemically affecting the central nervous system can lead to tolerance, even if you jump from one to another. For instance, all drugs that lead to a dopamine rush (a euphoric “high” feeling) can lead to addiction, no matter how often you switch from one substance to another. 

Stage 3: Dependence

As a person gains tolerance to a drug and continues to use it a little more and a little more, they will likely not realize that their body is growing dependent on the substance.

Dependence can be physical or psychological. (4) (5)

  • Physical dependence is marked by chemical changes in brain structure, causing a person to experience withdrawal symptoms if they go for an extended period of time without taking the drug.
  • Psychological dependence is marked by an increase in risky behaviors as a person tries to satisfy the urge to use a drug, even if it’s negatively impacting their health and relationships.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse explains that dependence does not necessarily constitute addiction. (6) For instance, in cases where a person suffering from a chronic medical condition relies on a prescription drug to feel normal, that is not addiction.

In those cases, the body was not able to work properly before the person started taking the drug, and the medication is being used to correct that. In all other cases, like in situations where a person is using a drug to self-medicate for a mental health condition or a mental health disorder, the lines between dependence and addiction quickly blur.

Stage 4: Addiction

Once physical and psychological dependence forms, a person is considered to be addicted. (7) The symptoms and implications of drug addiction vary depending on the type of drug they’re using. However, it doesn’t change the fact that recovering from addiction is extremely difficult.

Clinically, you may hear addiction referred to as a “substance use disorder.” A person can remain in this stage of the cycle of addiction indefinitely and it’s not actually the final stage of addiction.

While you can break the cycle at this point by getting the right help, there is another stage that can send you right back to square one.

Stage 5: Relapse

After using a drug for some time, a person can find themselves trying to quit. However, due to the severe withdrawal symptoms that take place when you are depriving yourself of a substance that you have become physically or psychologically dependent on, a person quitting on their own is at a higher risk of re-entering the addiction cycle.

Withdrawal symptoms can range from severe and uncomfortable to potentially fatal. (8) The only way to ease them is to use the drug again, throwing a person who is trying to quit into relapse. Oftentimes, when people relapse, they will binge on a drug, worsening their addiction. It can also lead to a fatal overdose.

Relapse prevention is an essential part of addiction recovery. Providers have long recognized that relapse is a process rather than an event.

Some relapse prevention programs have delineated stages of relapse, starting with an “emotional relapse” followed by a “mental relapse” and culminating in a “physical relapse.”

Three of the most common relapse prevention strategies have included therapy and skill development, medications, and monitoring. (9) Instead of quitting on their own, it’s important to understand how far substance abuse treatment programs have come.

How Can You Break The Addiction Cycle?

Breaking the addiction cycle is not easy, and the hardest part is usually the withdrawal period, which can last 2-3 weeks when you detox. If you have been using a hard drug for a very long time, you may even continue to experience psychological symptoms for months after quitting. 

Without the right therapies, support, and treatment plan, it can feel impossible to overcome them.

The best way to break the cycle and get help is by pursuing a qualified addiction treatment specialist. They can help you understand your behavior and what originally led to that initial use. 

They can also support you through the withdrawal period and beyond by providing:

  • Evidence-based programs to help you get on the road to recovery
  • Prescription medications to lessen withdrawal symptoms (10)
  • Support groups to help you talk through your experience
  • The option to stay at a residential treatment center away from triggers
  • Outpatient services, including counseling (11)

The best programs not only help you manage cravings and withdrawal symptoms, but they can also limit the accessibility of drugs and limit alcohol use. They do this while protecting you from triggers when you’re most vulnerable.

These are holistic programs that can additionally address possible co-existing disorders such as alcohol abuse alcohol addiction, and mental illness. They can even help you get a proper diagnosis for health issues or assist you in creating a strong support network.

Ultimately, with the help of a treatment program and qualified healthcare providers, you can get to the next stage beyond the addiction cycle and break free of your drug dependence for good.

Are you looking for a confidential treatment program that can help you overcome substance use? Zinnia Health can help. Call our team today at (855) 430-9439 to learn more about our treatment options.


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