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A Closer Look at the Addiction Cycle

breaking the addiction cycle

Addiction: The most severe form of substance use disorder, associated with compulsive or uncontrolled use of one or more substances. Addiction is a chronic brain disease that has the potential for both recurrence (relapse) and recovery. – The 2016 Surgeon General’s Report, “Facing Addiction in America”

For those who are not affected by it, addiction is not always easy to define. Many see drug addiction as a choice, as selfish, or as a moral failing. Many ask, “Why can’t a user simply stop taking drugs?” or “How come my loved one keeps falling back into the same drug-using habits?” Fact is, addiction is a complex, chronic cycle, and recognizing the reality of it can be a hard pill to swallow.

Whether you are here to learn about addiction, to understand its effects, or because a loved one has fallen into the addiction cycle, it is most important that you recognize this: Substance addiction is a compulsive, neurological disorder that affects more than 20 million people across the United States – not by choice, but by way of a biological dependence on drugs. It is considered a brain disease because of the way that drugs affect a user’s brain chemistry, leaving them little (if any) capacity for self-control.

Drug-dependent individuals lack the ability to make sound decisions regarding their drug use. Their brains are telling them that it’s okay to use drugs, that they need the drugs to function and feel good. This is due to the fact that drugs change the structure of the brain and disrupt its normal functioning. They modify how we experience pleasure, how we think and make decisions, and how we control actions. This is especially true for adolescents and young adults, who are inherently prone to impulsive behaviors even without the use of drugs. For these reasons, it can be extremely difficult for an addict (especially a young one) to recognize a problem and seek the help he or she needs.

If your loved one is battling substance abuse or addiction, it may be up to you to take that first step in recognizing that a problem exists and that professional treatment is needed. Most often, a user cannot outright accept that a drug addiction has developed at all. Even as a parent, a friend, or family member, it can be hard to break your loved one out of this vicious addiction cycle.

That is where Turnbridge can help. As a professional addiction treatment center for young adults, we know the reality of the addiction cycle – in all its stages, in all its forms, in all its outcomes. We also recognize the potential for recovery. To help you better understand the addiction cycle and identify where your loved one falls, we’ve broken down its phases below. If your loved one falls anywhere in this cycle, rest assured that there is still a great chance for a breakthrough – for a chance at sobriety.

An Overview of the Addiction Cycle

The recent Surgeon General Report classifies addiction as a “repeating cycle” with three distinct stages that counteract a user’s brain function. The three-stage model is evidence-based, drawn from decades of research, and is designed to help professionals, educators, addicts, and loved ones alike understand the symptoms of addiction, how they can be treated, and the potential for recovery.

Phase 1: The Binge/Intoxication Stage

The opening stage of the addiction cycle, binging and intoxication stems from the initial act of using drugs. This, at first, is a choice made by a user. A person may turn to drugs out of peer pressure or out of emotional or social distress. Upon taking the drug, he or she will experience its rewarding effects – drugs activate excessive amounts of dopamine in the brain, creating exaggerated feelings of pleasure.

These heightened feelings will lead most users to take more of a drug, in efforts to again experience its pleasurable effects. Then, it is this repeated use is what triggers the addiction cycle to fully commence. Used regularly, the drugs begin to stimulate the areas of the brain that involve habit formation. A user will experience more and more urges or “cravings” to take the drug. They will seek it out.

Phase 2: The Withdrawal/Negative Effects Stage

The second phase of the addiction cycle is the negative, emotional state that a user will experience after not using the drug for a period of time. This phase indicates that a dependence has developed. A user in the second stage of the addiction cycle will experience withdrawal symptoms, including both emotional and physical side effects. These symptoms can vary in severity and duration depending on a user’s substance of choice, but all derive from the same areas of the brain: the reward circuitry that once experienced an overload of dopamine, and the brain’s stress systems.

Withdrawal symptoms to look for in your loved one include:

  • Intense feelings of irritability and hostility
  • Depression or suicidal thoughts
  • Anxiety
  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Nausea
  • Physical illness
  • Overall bodily pain

Many dependent users will attempt to ease these withdrawal symptoms with continued substance abuse. This negative reinforcement may provide temporary relief, however, will only push a user further into the cycle: He or she will use drugs as a means to reduce the pain of withdrawal, yet simultaneously make it so those symptoms are even more intense the next time he or she stops.

Phase 3:  The Preoccupation/Anticipation Stage

The final phase of the addiction cycle is the compulsive drug-seeking stage, in which a user seeks out the drug after a period of abstinence and withdrawal. As mentioned above, this seeking stage is often driven by a compulsion to self-medicate. Sometimes it is driven by what feel like uncontrollable cravings.

This stage can initiate hours, days, weeks, even months after drug use has stopped. If your loved one appears to be preoccupied with using substances (whether thinking about using, actively using, or spending time seeking drugs), take it as a sign it is time to seek help. This stage of the addiction cycle involves the brain’s prefrontal cortex, the part that controls a person’s ability to organize thoughts, prioritize tasks, make decisions, and regulate his or her actions, emotions, and impulses. This is the stage that indicates an addiction has control over the user, and no longer the other way around. It is perhaps the most overwhelming stage of the cycle, in which users’ compulsion for drug use is most relentless.

Understanding the stages of the addiction cycle – what they mean and look like – will aid you in knowing how to best help your loved one break free from them. No matter where your loved one is in these stages, know that it is never too early or too late to seek help for a progressing drug addiction. Even if you just discovered your loved one is abusing drugs, early intervention can prevent him or her from developing an addiction down the road.  And even if your loved one has attempted drug rehab and since relapsed, know that recovery is still in arm’s reach. A long-term drug treatment center and a tailored approach to addiction treatment can help.

For more information about the addiction cycle, call Turnbridge young adult drug rehab center at 877-581-1793 or check out our free infographic, “Overcoming the Cycle of Addiction.”