6 Stages of the Addiction Cycle

Over the years the perception of addiction has changed. More and more people are learning that addiction is not a choice and that it is a disease. Unfortunately, there are still people out there that look at addiction as a character flaw and not as something that a person has to live with. 

Addiction impacts every person differently. How one person might struggle with and handle their addiction might not be the same as another person, even if they are struggling with the same or similar substances. Most people battling addiction might notice the same pattern or cycle of addiction. In this article, we will be discussing the six stages of the addiction cycle. 

If you or a loved one is dealing with substance use or addiction, don’t hesitate to visit our website and learn about our treatment options.


Initial Use

addiction treatment IndianaIt is easy for a person to say that they will try a substance like drugs or alcohol only one time and then be done with it. No one attempts to have a substance use issue, so why are addiction rates so high? It is impossible to know how your brain will react to a substance. Substances like drugs or alcohol can immediately lead to serious consequences such as overdose or addiction.

Most people don’t really think about the possibility of addiction when they try a substance of abuse for the first time. In fact, in some cases, the first time someone uses the substance is for a legitimate medical reason via a doctor’s prescription. Other times someone might try a sip of alcohol or take a pill just to see what happens.

Regardless of the reason for trying the substance, it is important to know how severe the consequences may be. For someone who is at high risk of developing an addiction, sometimes all it takes is one try of a substance to start the addiction cycle.

Factors that may lead to a higher risk of developing an addiction include

  • A family history of substance abuse and/or mental health disorders
  • Growing up in an environment of abuse or neglect
  • Suffering from mental health issues
  • Growing up in an environment where substance use was common


For someone who is in the cycle of addiction, the next phase after the initial use of the substance is abusing the substance. Some people can drink or do drugs and never leave the initial use phase of the addiction cycle. They can simply have a drink or take a pill recreationally from time to time and not experience any adverse effects.

The point at which a substance is being abused is defined based on the substance itself. For an illicit substance or a substance that has little to no legal or medical purpose such as heroin, it is considered substance abuse the first time someone uses it. Other substances can be obtained legally, either over the counter (alcohol, tobacco, etc) or via a doctor’s prescription. This is not considered to be abuse until the substance is taken in ways other than directed or to achieve a specific feeling.

Some common examples of abusing a legal substance include:

  • Taking a higher dose than recommended
  • Taking a drug more often than recommended
  • Drinking for the sole purpose of getting drunk or catching a buzz
  • Continuing to take a substance even after you are no longer being prescribed it
  • Using a legal substance as a form of self-medicating


Over time, as someone continues to use substances, they will begin to build up a tolerance. When you build up a tolerance it means that you need more and more of the substance to reach your desired effect.

For example, if you had been taking 10mg of a prescription drug, over time you might notice that in order to feel the way you used to feel when taking 10mg, you now have to take 15mg or 20mg.

Tolerance is the result of the chemical changes to the brain that occur as the result of continuing to use and abuse whatever substance or substances you are taking. It’s these chemical changes that result in you needing to take more of the substance to reach your desired effects.

Tolerance isn’t a one-time thing either. As you continue to drink more or increase your dosage, your brain will then begin to build a tolerance to that new amount as well. This leads to even more consumption of a substance. When a person reaches a certain tolerance level, they might turn to even stronger and more dangerous substances in order to keep chasing the effect they are looking for.


As your tolerance continues to increase and your brain chemistry continues to change, your body is becoming dependent on whatever substance you are taking. The brain begins to realize that it now needs the substance or substances in order to feel normal. This message is communicated to the body as well, which leads to physical side effects.

In fact, when the substance begins to wear off and leave the body, the brain will rebel in the form of withdrawal symptoms until it gets what it wants again. Some of these withdrawal symptoms include

  • Anxiety
  • Nausea
  • Depression
  • Anger or hostility
  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Aches and pains
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea

In addition to experiencing these withdrawal symptoms, someone dependent on a substance of abuse will often experience intense cravings and even be preoccupied with the thought of taking the substance next, to the point where it can negatively impact their everyday life such as work or school and have an adverse effect on their relationships.

It’s important to note that someone can be dependent on a substance and not necessarily be suffering from addiction. This is true for someone who is taking a prescription to address an ailment or a medical condition. They can be dependent on the drug in order to function properly but not be addicted to it.


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If a person has become dependent on a substance for a non-medical reason, then that dependency is likely the first sign of an addiction. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the main signs and symptoms of substance abuse and addiction are

  • Intense cravings
  • Using more of the substance than medically directed
  • Being unable to stop using the substance
  • Needing more of the substance to reach the desired effect
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when stopping
  • Spending a significant amount of time finding the substance, using it, and recovering from using it
  • Losing interest in previously enjoyable activities
  • Experiencing relationship problems as a result of using
  • Struggling at work or school
  • Changes in personal hygiene
  • Continuing to use the substance despite the negative effects
  • Using the substance in dangerous situations

If you are experiencing 2-3 of these symptoms you might be suffering from a mild form of addiction. 4-5 could mean a more moderate form of addiction. 6 or more could mean that you are suffering from a severe substance use disorder.

Regardless of the severity of the addiction, if you or a loved one is suffering from any type of substance abuse or addiction it is important to get the help that you need before it is too late.


There is one more stage in the cycle of addiction after addiction and it’s not recovery, it’s actually relapse. While the assumption with relapse is that it is a failure by the person to maintain their sobriety, the idea of relapsing is more complicated than that.

While yes, relapsing means failing to stay sober, it is important to remember that relapse is a part of the overall addiction process. It’s also important to remember that if you do relapse it is not an indication that you failed or that you are a failure.

Almost half of all people that are in recovery relapse at least once. If you do relapse it is important not to beat yourself up about it. Instead, look for ways that you can get the help that you need to get back on the right track.

At First City Recovery, we are here for you if you relapse. We offer relapse prevention techniques and resources to help you better understand why you relapsed in addition to helping you prevent another relapse in the future.

First City Recovery Center

At First City Recovery Center we offer inpatient, outpatient, and partial hospitalization treatment programs. Additionally, our treatment center provides detox treatment, aftercare services, and therapies including

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
  • Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT)
  • Group Therapy
  • Family Therapy
  • Experiential Therapy

We use these therapies and our other programs to treat a wide variety of addictions, including

  • Alcohol
  • Cocaine
  • Heroin
  • Fentanyl
  • Meth
  • Opioids
  • Prescription drugs
  • Tramadol
  • Xanax

Are You In the Addiction Cycle?

Whether you are in the initial use phase or have progressed to addiction, it is never too early or too late to get the help you need with your drug or alcohol addiction. 

If you or someone you know is suffering from substance abuse, dependency, or addiction, contact us today. At First City Recovery we can help you break the cycle of addiction and get started on the road to recovery.

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