June 24, 2024
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June 24, 2024
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Understanding The Cycle of Addiction

No one engages in substance use or other activities expecting or hoping to develop an uncontrollable urge to participate. However, the desire to use substances or engage in risky behavior happens when an individual becomes addicted. Alcohol abuse, illicit drugs or sex with multiple partners may seem harmless and fun. Still, the initial euphoria or pleasure can turn into a craving that threatens safety and well-being.

When people become addicted to something, they must have it in more significant doses to achieve the pleasure they experienced when they first tried it. Harmful substances cause changes in the brain’s pleasure center, requiring more of the substances to recapture that initial feeling of euphoria or bliss. It never feels as good for most people as it did in the early encounters. However, the addicted individual may think, “If I get more of it, I can relive that initial feeling.”

Addiction doesn’t happen overnight; it develops over time. When it comes to substance abuse, the length of time it takes to become addicted depends on the drug. For example, some individuals require prescription drugs to manage pain. Opioid painkillers can be highly addictive, making it easier for an individual to become dependent on opioids more quickly than some other substances.

The Cycle of Addiction

Understanding the cycle of addiction helps individuals know when they or a loved one might be at risk for a downward spiral that can be tough to recover from. The addiction cycle is different for each individual. Stages can overlap, and professionals may call them by different names. People addicted to substances tend to move through phases of substance use from seemingly harmless to uncontrollable and destructive. Individuals may go through the treatment process, but because addiction is a relapsing brain disease, some may only get temporary relief before they start abusing substances again.


Initiation is an individual’s first experience with a substance. Initial use can happen in several ways. Adolescents who grow up in homes where parents drink alcohol might take their first drink without their parents knowing about it. A curious teen may decide to take a family member’s prescription medications to see if they can get high. Young people often try drugs or alcohol when hanging out with peers, and research shows that substance use at a young age puts individuals at higher risk for addiction. Young people’s brains are still developing. Making sound decisions may be difficult because they may not have the critical thinking skills to understand the harmful consequences of risky behaviors.


Once individuals have tried a substance, they might move to the experimentation stage. Experimentation often involves trying different substances to see which offers the “best” high. People who experiment may mix drugs with alcohol. Experimenting with harmful substances may occur during social gatherings, such as parties.

Some people enjoy the perceived relaxation that comes with using drugs or alcohol. Experimenting may lead them to use occasionally to alleviate stress or wind down at the end of a long workday. People in the experimentation stage usually choose when and how often they’ll use a substance and haven’t yet reached the point of craving or dependency.

Regular Use

Some people move from experimenting or using substances socially to making drugs or alcohol part of their everyday lives. They no longer only have a drink when they go out with friends or on special occasions, but develop a pattern where they drink every weekend or use alcohol or drugs to cope with issues like loneliness or trauma. Individuals may experience problems such as hangovers or be absent from work after a night of heavy drinking. However, they may function without others knowing they drink regularly. Individuals who are regular substance users may feel in control, thinking they can handle the substance and will quit whenever they’re ready. While it’s true some people in this stage may decide to stop drinking or using, regular use can lead to the next stage: high-risk use.

High-Risk Use

Individuals who become high-risk users will start to exhibit behavioral changes that can be signs they need help. A high-risk user may develop severe cravings for substances and compulsive drug-seeking. Changes in the chemical receptors in the brain’s reward center can lead to a condition where casual or regular use no longer satisfies. Frequent and controlled use changes to chronic misuse and interferes with their daily routines, such as work, caring for children or going to school.

A high-risk user may believe they can perform tasks like operating machinery at work or driving while intoxicated. They may attract co-workers’ attention due to unsafe work habits or neglect to do their share of the work. Their behaviors lead to strained relationships and endangering others and themselves. If this describes you or a loved one, it’s essential to pay attention to these warning signs and seek help before spiraling further into the vicious cycle of addiction.


When substance users reach the dependency stage, they need the drugs or alcohol to get through the day. The person who could once drink or use drugs and mask it well enough to hold down a job or take care of essential family needs no longer has those priorities. Getting alcohol or drugs is now the center of the individual’s thinking. At this point, the individual is not drinking or using drugs for reward but to get through the physical and mental challenges that occur when they don’t use the substance. Therefore,
getting the drug is paramount. They may experience severe cravings and require more drugs more often. Without the substances, they undergo painful and unpleasant withdrawal symptoms.

Alcohol and drugs can have specific effects on the body. However, some common withdrawal symptoms include agitation, depression, excitability, insomnia, loss of appetite, mental confusion, mood swings, nausea, night sweats and shakiness.

When a person reaches dependency, illicit drug use can have lasting and devastating impacts on loved ones and others. Family problems are common. Children who grow up in homes with addicted individuals may experience neglect and abuse by their parents or strangers. Children may also begin to use substances at a young age. Domestic violence, driving while impaired and financial problems are common in families where a member is addicted to substances.


A time comes when the only way people can overcome addiction is to seek drug rehab or substance abuse treatment. It can be challenging for most addicts to quit without help. Professional treatment helps break the addiction cycle, and insurance may cover treatment.

Addiction treatment is not one-size-fits-all. For treatment to be successful, it must address the complex issues the addicted person faces. For example, an addicted individual may also have a mental health disorder or chronic conditions that contribute to poor physical health. An assessment helps medical and professional staff weigh all treatment options and develop an individualized plan, which may involve dual diagnosis treatment.


The detoxification process helps the person begin fighting addiction by clearing alcohol and other drugs from the body. During detox, the drug dependence can be so strong that the individual experiences painful withdrawal symptoms. Medical staff can prescribe medications that help lessen the severity of withdrawal symptoms.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy helps addicted individuals recognize and avoid situations that trigger substance use. People with substance use disorder discover the actions and feelings that lead to repeated substance use and develop coping skills to minimize those triggers.

Group Therapy

Group therapy helps individuals see they’re not alone in their struggles. Groups led by therapists are safe spaces where members can feel comfortable sharing their experiences and learning from others. Group members offer support and hold each other accountable for reaching goals. A therapy group is where individuals struggling with addiction can learn communication skills and develop self-confidence. In addition to group therapy, family therapy may be appropriate.

Family Therapy

When individuals struggle with addiction, their families also suffer. Understanding the impact their behavior has had on loved ones offers opportunities for addicted individuals to make amends. During sessions, families can address conflict with the guidance of a professional therapist. Family therapy helps loved ones increase addiction understanding and how it affects personal relationships. They can also learn about actions that may contribute to the problem, such as enabling the substance user by pretending the problem doesn’t exist.


Staying clean or sober is a significant struggle for individuals who undergo substance abuse treatment. Those who’ve tried to quit on their own understand how difficult it is to overcome this addiction stage.

Emotional Relapse

Emotional relapse can happen when individuals feel isolated and may keep feelings inside. Neglecting self-care, including not getting enough rest, can lead to emotional relapse.

Mental Relapse

Individuals may experience a mental relapse when they start reminiscing about past drug abuse. They may think about the friends who were part of their drug addiction and long for the opportunity to drink or use drugs. An individual may plan to relapse during a mental relapse, leading to a physical relapse.

Physical Relapse

Physical relapse is the third relapse stage. A person experiences physical relapse when they start using again. Physical relapses can happen when the individual finds an opportunity to use again and can occur when they think they can use without getting caught.

Aftercare Is Important

Aftercare support is essential for individuals who complete substance abuse treatment programs. Outpatient counseling, peer support groups and community organizations that connect individuals to community resources can help people stay on the path to recovery.

Follow Your Path at Recovery at the Crossroads

At Recovery at the Crossroads, we believe recovery is personal. When you come through our doors, expect an individualized approach to care. This means that, with your help, we’ll develop a recovery plan to address the challenges you face.

We know it can be unsettling to share your deepest concerns and fears, but we’ll be with you each step of the way. In both inpatient and outpatient rehab, our compassionate and professional staff help patients navigate the recovery experience.

Whether you’re dealing with alcohol abuse or drug use, you can count on getting the support you need to stop using. We understand that substance abuse is not just about the individual seeking treatment; your loved ones also need attention. Our therapists will help you and your loved ones dive into the problems that can be challenging as you work toward getting mentally and physically healthy.

Emotional trauma is as real as physical pain and can keep you from enjoying your life to the fullest. If you’ve experienced trauma, we want to help you work through the emotional pain.

While at Recovery at the Crossroads, you should be able to focus on your recovery journey, so if you experience withdrawal symptoms, we offer medication-assisted treatment that can provide relief and help you feel better.

Art therapy and music therapy can help you connect with your emotions and feel positive. Art therapy allows you to express feelings when you can’t find the words. Music can be both calming and uplifting when you feel anxious or down. Many people find that when they engage in these creative therapies, they feel less stress and can let go of guilt.

At Recovery at the Crossroads, individuals find a welcoming environment where they discover how good it feels to live substance-free. We’re ready to help you or a loved one chart a path toward recovery.

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