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Understanding the Cycle of Addiction

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Understanding the cycle of addiction requires you to first understand that people often experience similar phases in their journey to recovery, even though this isn’t always the case. Regardless of the specific type of addiction, such as drugs, alcohol, gambling, or something else, addiction often follows a similar pattern. The process tends to continue until someone receives addiction treatment, and then they can begin their attempt to break the cycle.

What Is Addiction?

Before delving into the cycle of addiction, it’s important to know medically what addiction is. According to the American Psychiatric Association, addiction is the uncontrolled use of a substance, or it can be a behavior that continues despite adverse consequences.

Addiction leads a person to have an extreme focus on a substance to the point that it affects their ability to function in their daily life. Someone with a substance use disorder will continue to use it even knowing that it’s creating problems in their life.

A substance use disorder can lead to distortions of behavior and thinking.

It’s a complex condition where there are changes in the structure and function of the brain, leading to alterations in personality. Someone with a substance use disorder may have overwhelming cravings, and over time, the repeated use of substances can impact brain function.  

Addiction or substance use disorder symptoms are often grouped into one of four categories. These categories include:

  •  Impaired control: Symptoms categorized under the umbrella of impaired control include cravings or urges to use a substance, the inability to stop using it, and failed attempts at stopping or cutting back.
  • Social problems: When someone has a substance use disorder, they may not function in their daily lives, including school or work. They may also stop doing things they once enjoyed as a result.
  • Risky behaviors: If someone uses a substance, they are more likely to be in dangerous environments and settings.
  • Physical effects: Substance use disorder has physical effects, including the development of tolerance and withdrawal symptoms that occur if they stop suddenly.

Stages of Addiction

While everyone is unique and different, some general phases of the addiction cycle occur across the board.

Initial Use

The first stage in the cycle of addiction is initial use. Someone might experiment with a substance for any number of reasons, including peer pressure or to deal with the symptoms of a mental health disorder. Not everyone who tries alcohol or even drugs will develop a substance use disorder. There are certain risk factors associated with addiction, including a family history of substance abuse, being the victim of abuse, social issues, and a chaotic environment. Even with high-risk factors being present, again, not everyone will develop a substance use disorder.

Substance Abuse

The next stage of the cycle of addiction is substance abuse. When someone abuses a substance, they aren’t necessarily addicted, at least not based on medical criteria.  Substance abuse  is defined as using a substance in any harmful way. Substance abuse can include:

  • Using any illegal drug
  • Binge drinking
  • Taking higher doses of prescription medicines than prescribed
  • Using a prescription drug without a prescription

During this phase of the cycle of addiction, a person might use a substance more frequently or use higher doses than they did initially.


Eventually, after abusing drugs or alcohol, a person begins to develop physical symptoms of substance abuse. Tolerance occurs when the substance alters your brain and body. You may not get the same feeling as you once did from the substance you’re misusing. As a result, you might end up using larger doses to chase those initial effects. Tolerance indicates that a person’s brain has gone through changes because of substance abuse.


When someone uses a substance for an extended time, they can become dependent on it physically and mentally. With dependence, a person may not be able to feel pleasure without it. They may also feel extremely unwell if they don’t use the substance they’re dependent on. You can be dependent on a substance without being addicted, but the two often occur together.


When someone has an addiction, they meet specific criteria included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Addiction is a diagnosable condition, as is the case with other disorders and diseases. The signs and symptoms of addiction used to make a diagnosis include:

  • Using more of that substance that one planned to or anticipated
  • An inability to stop using the substance
  • Relationship problems that develop because of substance use
  • Spending a lot of time looking for the substance, using it, or recovering from its effects
  • Forgoing participation in leisure activities to use the substance instead
  • Not keeping up with responsibilities
  • Cravings or urges to use the substance
  • Ongoing use despite adverse health effects
  • Using the substance in dangerous situations, such as when driving
  • Developing a tolerance
  • Withdrawal symptoms occur if the substance is stopped

A substance use disorder can be diagnosed as mild, moderate, or severe. The more symptoms someone has, the more likely it is they have a severe substance use disorder.


Some people do consider relapse part of the cycle of addiction, but this is controversial. The reason relapse is sometimes included is because addiction is regarded as a chronic condition. In chronic conditions, relapse can and often does occur. Reasons for relapse vary. For example, some people might relapse a part of the cycle of addiction because they didn’t receive the proper treatment for them, which needs to be adjusted. This doesn’t mean that someone always relapses as part of their cycle of addiction.

Breaking the Cycle of Addiction

Treatment is almost always required to break the cycle of addiction and begin recovery, and initially, there has to be a recognition of a problem. Once you recognize there is a problem and are willing to accept help, the counselors at Pacific Sands Recovery Center have had a great success rate of being able to help people find their way to sobriety. Then, a medical professional should go over a person’s symptoms and diagnose the substance use disorder and its severity.

Due to the complexity of addiction, multiple types of treatment are usually needed. For the majority of people, the approach that works best is a combination of therapy and medications. Sometimes treatment might include both individual and group sessions. There are both inpatient and outpatient treatment options.

To begin a treatment program, physical dependence first has to be addressed. If someone has a severe or long-term addiction, they might require inpatient detox. During this time, their physical and mental needs are taken care of by the trained staff, including medical professionals. Once detox is complete, then that person can move onto the subsequent phases of their treatment.

Even after initial treatment, because of the difficulty of breaking the cycle of addiction, most people continue with long-term aftercare programs for years. Aftercare can include checking in at the treatment center, ongoing therapy, or participation in support groups like a 12-step program.

The cycle of addiction is challenging, and breaking it does often require comprehensive care and treatment. Pacific Sands Recovery Center has the tools and experience necessary to help break the cycle and keep you from entering back in. Call our care coordinators today to discuss a plan of action.

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  • I would just like to share how Grateful I am with my experience through my addiction at this facility. I couldn’t possibly ask to be in such a “SAFE/COMFORTABLE” environment while receiving treatment for my addiction. I would just like to say Thank you sooo much to ALL the staff there from the Nurse’s to counselors and therapist all of you are a True Blessing in helping me through my journey of sobriety. I couldn’t feel more comfortable there on how they monitored my physical health and on dealing with my emotional health with there therapy sessions and groups I truly see them ALL as Family!

    Andrew N.
  • As a professional in the recovery field I have worked with many detox centers and none compare to The this one. Their staff is incredibly attentive and knowledgable regarding the needs of individuals seeking recovery from the very start. Their facility is welcoming and homey while remaining very luxe. I would recommend this facility to any loved one or friend looking to start down their journey of sobriety.

  • This place helped saved my life, and a great stepping stone to get my life on the right track. Was there first client under new management, caring staff and owners, comfortable place to get you on your feet in sobriety.

  • Great Staff. Comfortable Environment. Awesome place to Get Clean and Sober. Thank you guys for everything.


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