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The Vicious Cycle of Addiction

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“If it’s so bad for them, why don’t they just stop?”

Any reader who’s battled addiction before is rolling their eyes after reading that question.1) because, for some odd reason, people ask this all the time, and 2) because it’s a totally ridiculous question. You know that it’s just not that simple and easy. The cycle of addiction defies the strongest of goals, will-power, and rational decisions. When someone experiences addiction, it means that his or her brain has physically and chemically changed. Addiction is a neurological condition, not a choice.

Understanding the Cycle of Addiction

The moment someone uses drugs or alcohol is only one small part of the whole addiction process. Addiction involves multiple distinct emotional states and they come and go in a cycle. Let’s break down 1) how someone ends up in the cycle, 2) each phase of the cycle of addiction, and 3) how to escape it.

Falling into the cycle

Before someone’s relationship with drugs or alcohol becomes an addiction, it begins as misuse. What does this look like? It happens when someone who is experiencing emotional or physical pain turns to drugs or alcohol for relief. It is normal to do this once in a while, but misuse looks like a habit. Whenever something unpleasant occurs, this person automatically starts to look for a high.

Abuse is the phase that comes next. The individual has to use increasingly large amounts of the substance to achieve the desired effect. All of the original problems that initiated the substance abuse probably haven’t been resolved, and more problems have likely developed. Problems at school, work, or at home develop due to the drugs, creating more stress and anxiety. Deterioration of physical and mental functioning sets in too. Although drugs work as a temporary escape, they do nothing to solve the issues that upset us.

Addiction happens when someone continues to use even after the negative consequences start popping up. Seeking and using drugs or alcohol becomes the main objective in an addict’s life. At this point, the individual has become trapped in the cycle of addiction and quitting will take a significant amount of hard work.

The cycle of addiction – Why they just can’t stop

The behavior of an addict is fairly predictable. This is because moods, cravings, and substance use happen in a circular pattern.


  1. Negative emotions pop up and rise in intensity. These can be triggered by normal life events, shame about the addiction, or by the negative consequences of drug abuse.  Oftentimes, the “come-down” or “hangover” from the last use is enough to get the cycle going again.
  2. Fantasizing about the relief of using drugs or alcohol. At this point, the user wants to resist using again and might try to distract his or herself from the substance. Addicts often realize that the drug is harmful and wish to quit, but are overcome by cravings. The inability to quit can cause feelings of frustration which would then contribute to the cycle,
  3. Experiencing obsessive thoughts about the substance. The cravings are intensifying which makes it harder and harder to think of anything else except the drug. The obsessive thoughts are very ambivalent and tortured. The addict will think about the benefits of quitting as well as the relief that using again will provide. Anxiety and stress levels are very high at this point.
  4. The person caves and uses once again. Once the tension builds to an unendurable level, the person uses again. Cravings for drugs or alcohol are a force to be reckoned with and can get the best of us.
  5. After acting out once, the person loses control over the behavior. Drinking or using drugs gets out of hand and the person may start on a binge of the forbidden behaviors. Earlier the person said they wanted to use “just a bit”, or “only enough to get rid of the craving”. However, now that’s gone out the window and they are back to behaving excessively.
  6. After “acting out”, the addict feels guilty and ashamed for giving in. He or she resolves to break the cycle and stop using.
  7. Tension, stress, and anxiety levels start rising. Guilt and shame are unpleasant feelings and will put anyone in a bad mood.
  8. The cycle begins again.

The cycle can last hours, days, or weeks depending on the individual. Many addicts, especially tobacco smokers, can go months before falling back into the cycle of addiction.

Breaking free from the Cycle

To break the grip that drugs or alcohol have on your life, you will have to interrupt the cycle of addiction by seeking treatment.  Between steps 7 and 8, you can intervene in the cycle by learning new ways to manage the stress and anxiety that begin the cycle anew.

Breaking free from the cycle of addiction is much easier when you have help. With the help of your friends, family, and addiction treatment center, recovery is within reach. Please reach out to us at Breathe Life Healing Centers; we will help you get to where you want to be.

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