The Cycle of Addiction

Addiction doesn’t normally occur after using a substance a single time. However, drugs are powerful and change your brain chemistry. In addition, certain factors contribute to a cycle of addiction that is difficult to get out of. Understanding the addiction cycle can help you learn how to break it.

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What Is the Cycle of Addiction?

It’s not easy to stop using drugs if you have developed an addiction. Substance abuse is not a disorder of motivation or willpower. Many people who are stuck in the cycle of addiction are motivated to relinquish themselves from the harmful effects of the drugs. However, the chemical and physical changes that your brain undergoes in response to the drugs make it difficult to stop using them.

Drugs act on the reward centers in your brain. When you feel pleasure from taking them, your brain registers that enjoyment as a reward. It wants you to repeat the behaviors that are associated with those good feelings. Therefore, taking drugs to feel better can quickly become a habit that initiates the cycle of addiction. Once your body is dependent on the drugs, you may experience withdrawal symptoms when you’re not taking them.

There are plenty of techniques for managing withdrawal symptoms and the distressing feelings that led you to use drugs in the first place. However, the chemicals from the drugs are stronger than your body’s natural mechanisms for keeping you well. Therefore, you can only stop the cycle of addiction by eliminating the drugs from your system and getting treatment for the substance abuse disorder and any underlying issues. After you detox, your brain and body need time to learn how to self-regulate. This period of recovery can be intensely uncomfortable. Your brain is wired to remember the easiest path to relief, which is often substance abuse. Therefore, you need plenty of support, resources and guidance to stay sober in the face of cravings and psychological and physical distress.

The Stages of the Cycle of Addiction

The development of addiction is a process. It comes on in stages. Each of these stages represents a point in the addiction cycle that perpetuates further addictive behavior. The stages may happen simultaneously or one after the other. You may go through these stages quickly or gradually.

Initial Use

Using a drug one time doesn’t always create an addiction. However, it’s the first step that makes you susceptible to the cycle of addiction. Individual circumstances, such as a co-occurring mental illness, abuse, neglect or an unstable living environment can increase the chances of developing an addiction. Taking drugs for the first time at an early age can also affect the developing brain and put you at risk of getting stuck in the cycle of addiction.


Substance abuse happens when you use a drug in a way that doesn’t support your health. This could include using illicit drugs to get high or increasing the dosage of your prescription medication to feel the effects more intensely. Once you start abusing drugs, you begin training your brain to depend on them for pain reduction or pleasure. You hijack your body’s natural reward pathways, making it more difficult to experience the positive aspects of life without using the drugs. You might feel better, or even more like yourself, when you use the drugs.

Drug abuse isn’t always obvious. In many cases, people use drugs to self-medicate in response to other problems that they’re having in their lives. The drug abuse may make them feel more emotionally stable or help them manage stress. But creating a habit of using this unhealthy coping mechanism sets you up to rely on the drugs psychologically and physically. Once that happens, it’s difficult to get out of the cycle of addiction on your own.


Drug tolerance plays a significant role in perpetuating the cycle of addiction. Not everyone develops tolerance to the drugs that they use. However, tolerance can affect anyone who is taking any substance. Tolerance occurs when your body stops responding to the drug like it did before. You begin to need more of the drug to experience the same effects as you did when you started taking it. Developing a tolerance indicates that your body and brain are changing in response to the drug. Your body wants to stay in balance. Therefore, it will self-adjust to accommodate the flood of chemicals.


As you develop a tolerance, you may also become dependent on the drug. Your brain has gotten used to expecting the chemical delivery. It might even stop responding to your body’s natural chemicals that regulate your mood, energy and vital processes. Dependence occurs when you need the drug to function normally. Dependence perpetuates the addiction cycle.

Let’s say that you have been using cocaine regularly for several months. You may not be able to feel enjoyment without using the drug. Therefore, you continue to take it. However, abusing the drug usually causes more harm than good. It may enhance your mood in the short term, but it can cause dangerous side effects. Plus, the fact that your body no longer responds to its own mood-enhancing chemicals indicates that the drug is contributing to dysfunction.


By the time you develop a full-fledged addiction, you have already gone through the previous phases in the cycle of addiction. By this time, your body and brain are usually dependent on the substance. Even if you’re not physically addicted, you may be psychologically addicted. Addiction is a chronic, progressive disease. Moreover, an addicted brain is different than the brain of someone without an addiction. In some cases, the differences were there before the addiction. But substance abuse can also cause these brain changes.

Breaking the Cycle of Addiction

You can break the cycle of addiction by addressing it on every level. The most effective treatment for addiction is a personalized, holistic approach that employs a variety of methods. Looking at addiction treatment from a behavioral, psychological, neurological, psychosocial and spiritual perspective can help you break the cycle during any stage. Burning Tree Programs offer a well-rounded approach to ending the cycle of addiction.

We offer individual, group and family therapy, education, alternative therapies and life skills training in a supportive, community-based environment. It’s important to know that relapse is also part of the addiction cycle. Recovery is a lifelong journey, and you may need support along the way. Continuing treatment after you leave rehab, surrounding yourself with support and practicing the coping techniques that you learn can help you stay out of the addiction cycle for good.

Find an Inpatient Rehab Program Now

We are here to help you through every aspect of recovery. Call our admissions team to find the best for long-term recovery.

(866) 287-2877


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