The Cycle of Addiction and How It Can Be Broken

cycle of addiction

Leah had her first beer on her 21st birthday. She tasted other alcoholic drinks to see what they were like. She started to have multiple drinks every day. Sometimes she lost count.

Leah started to drink at home. She started to need it to start the morning, to feel relaxed, and to sleep at night. When she lost her job after coming in drunk, she tried to get sober. After a week, she relapsed.

Leah is caught in the cycle of addiction. This cycle looks different for each person, but it progresses through six stages.

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1. Initial Use and Experimentation

cycle of addictionLeah’s 21st birthday was her initial use or initial exposure. Research indicates that earlier exposure dramatically increases the risk of addiction. Adolescents whose first substance exposure happens before the age of 15, they’re at a significantly higher risk for alcohol addiction than their peers. However, anyone who misuses substances can enter the cycle of addiction, regardless of when their initial use happened.

Experimentation is part of this stage of the cycle of addiction. Many individuals who are able to use alcohol occasionally without becoming addicted do not move into experimentation after their initial exposure.

Experimentation often involves seeking the substance for the pleasurable effects of intoxication or as “a fix” for a problem, like pain or anxiety. The person is in control of the substance use, but the amount and frequency of use may increase quickly.

2. Misuse

Prescription, legal, and recreational substances—like alcohol—may be used without a person necessarily being in the cycle of addiction.

Use of any illegal substance (think street drugs) or misuse of legal substances (like alcohol) is the step beyond experimentation. Misuse may also be called “abuse.”

Leah’s use of alcohol went beyond experimentation quickly. She began to use alcohol in place of medication to help her sleep and as a mental health “treatment” for anxiety. She engaged in binge drinking and heavy drinking.

  • Binge drinking is defined by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) as 5 or more drinks for men and 4 or more drinks for women in the same sitting on at least 1 day in a month.
  • Heavy drinking is defined by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism as more than 14 drinks per week for men and more than 7 drinks per week for women. SAMHSA further defines heavy drinking as binge drinking on 5 or more days in a month.

In this stage, people may use substances to relieve physical or emotional pain. They may use substances despite any negative effects on their personal, home, social, or work life, as well as on their physical and mental health.

3. Tolerance and Substance Dependence

As Leah consumed more and more alcohol, it took more alcohol to produce the desired effects. She began to feel like she needed alcohol to function, kind of like needing alcohol instead of coffee to start her day.

At this stage of the cycle of addiction, chemical changes occur in the brain and body. When the amount of substance a person uses is no longer enough to give them the same high, they have to increase their amount and frequency of use. This is called tolerance. And as they continue to increase use, they become physically and mentally dependent on the drug.

4. Addiction

Once Leah became dependent on alcohol for physical and emotional reasons, she reached the stage of addiction. People in this stage use alcohol compulsively. And it has harmful effects on their lives, but the consequences don’t make them stop drinking. During the stage of addiction, if a person doesn’t have access to their “drug of choice,” they experience withdrawal symptoms.

Some people are able to hide their addiction from others, at least for a while. They may also be in denial that they even have a problem.

Others may begin to experience profound issues clearly linked to substance misuse. Some examples are progressive health issues, interpersonal problems, or—like Leah—an inability to retain employment.

5. Withdrawal and Sobriety

Once she lost her job, Leah was forced to admit she had a problem. She tried to quit drinking. But she didn’t seek any professional support. She relied on her own willpower to quit drinking. No rehab. No counseling. No peer support.

She quickly began to experience withdrawal symptoms. She didn’t know how to deal with the withdrawals or the triggers she faced on a daily basis. All she knew was they made her want to drink even more. She achieved brief sobriety, but was not able to sustain it.

Many people need detox services, alcohol addiction treatment, peer support (from groups like Alcoholics Anonymous), social support, and other external resources to find long-term sobriety. This often includes learning how to deal with the possibility and reality of relapse.

6. Relapse

Leah’s attempt at recovery resulted in relapse. She returned to her drinking habit.

Without the right support and treatment, it can be very difficult to maintain sobriety. A critical part of alcohol addiction treatment is developing a relapse prevention plan that helps you deal with potential triggers, lapses (e.g., having one drink), and relapses when they happen.

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Keys to Breaking the Cycle of Addiction

cycle of addictionIt’s difficult to break the cycle of addiction, but it’s not impossible.

Like Leah, many people find themselves back where they started. They enter cycle of addiction again—or find themselves back in a previous stage—after they thought they’d “recovered.”

To break the cycle, three things are key:

#1 Knowledge

Psychoeducation is often a fundamental part of alcohol addiction treatment. Having the right knowledge can provide the power needed to break the cycle of addiction. It’s important to understand how addiction works, what treatment options are available, and what you’re experiencing in your recovery journey.

#2 Insight

General knowledge won’t be enough. A person also has to have insight into their own addiction. What triggers their use? What new coping mechanisms do they need to put in place to avoid relapse? How has addiction impacted their behavior and relationships?

#3 Support

Recovery is not a solo endeavor. Social support is linked to higher rates of treatment entry, increased treatment engagement, and positive recovery outcomes. Support can come from friends and family, peer groups, counselors, a treatment program, transitional housing, and other resources. This support must be long-term and ongoing, to prevent re-entering the cycle and to truly break free from addiction.

If you feel caught in the cycle of addiction, help is available. Call 800-839-1686Who Answers? to speak to a treatment specialist about alcohol addiction treatment options.

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