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The Cycle of Addiction

One might wonder how a person can “let” themselves develop an addiction. Understanding the cycle of addiction reveals that it is not a choice; no one chooses to have their life controlled by this disease.

Addiction is one of the most prevalent mental health conditions in the United States, affecting millions of Americans daily. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), an estimated 21 million Americans over the age of 12 needed treatment for substance abuse in 2018.

The Cycle of Addiction

The American Society of Addiction Medicine defines addiction as a treatable, chronic medical disease including complex communications among brain circuits, genetics, the environment, and a person’s life experiences.

Developing a substance use disorder (SUD) transpires over a sequence of stages and progresses into the cycle of addiction. Various circumstances occur for an individual who could otherwise enjoy drinking socially or avoid drug use to become addicted to alcohol or other substances.


Initiation is the first stage of the addiction cycle. It occurs once the individual tries a substance for the first time. It could be the simple act of taking the first drink during one's teenage years, getting a prescription for pain management after an injury, or receiving medication for a mental health disorder like anxiety or depression. It could also include opioids for pain or benzodiazepines for anxiety, insomnia, or seizures.

When the first drug exposure is through a doctor, recognizing a problem may be challenging because the drug use is legal and prescribed by a physician. Changes occur in the brain even the first time a drug is used. Some drugs can mimic neurotransmitters, but they send abnormal messages, which can affect the brain and body. Drugs also interfere with the brain's reward system, which can lead to addiction. This is because a drug causes a significant dopamine release in the brain with the first use. Subsequently, dopamine is preferentially released in response to cues that are associated with drug use rather than the drug itself. Therefore, the brain becomes motivated to seek drugs.

The initial use of a drug affects the part of our brain that usually releases dopamine in response to healthy and happy activities. However, the “reward circuit” gets hijacked, and drugs take over the body’s dopamine levels. The drugs signal the reward circuit to release large amounts of dopamine. The brain remembers the feeling and sends out intense signals to want to use the drug again.


Experimentation is the second stage of the addiction cycle. In this stage, alcohol or drug use becomes part of social behavior correlated with having fun or relieving stress. This may include a glass of wine after work or a drink with friends when eating out.

However harmless the experimentation stage may seem, it is a slippery slope that can quickly transform into addiction.

Daily Use

The third stage of the addiction cycle is daily use of one or more substances. Everyday use occurs because the person forms a pattern of alcohol or drug use and relies on that substance to feel normal. Instead of only partaking in alcohol or drug use in social situations, a person may begin to drink or use drugs when alone because the substance is becoming more important to them.

Hazardous Use

Hazardous use is the fourth stage of the addiction cycle. During this phase, the individual begins to display dangerous behavior when using alcohol or drugs, such as driving while under the influence. Substance use may hinder succeeding at work, school, or other societal functions. Furthermore, substance use can negatively impact relationships with family, friends, or significant others.


The fifth stage of the addiction cycle is dependence. During this stage, the individual begins to develop a tolerance to alcohol or drugs and requires a considerable and unsafe amount to feel the same effects. At this stage, going too long without the alcohol or drugs will cause the person to show withdrawal symptoms or cravings for their preferred substance.


Addiction is the sixth stage of the addiction cycle, a chronic mental health disorder with symptoms and behaviors required to diagnose the condition. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders (DSM-5) lists conditions that constitute an addiction or substance use disorder.

The DSM-5 criteria for SUDs include:

  • Using increased amounts of the substance, more than the individual initially intended
  • Being unable to stop using the substance
  • Undergoing relationship problems centered on substance use
  • Spending large amounts of time pursuing or using the substance or recovering from substance use
  • Decreasing involvement in enjoyable activities due to substance use
  • Being unable to complete daily obligations due to substance use
  • Craving the substance
  • Continuing to use the substance regardless of adverse health effects
  • Regularly using the substance in dangerous situations
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when not using the substance


The seventh stage of the addiction cycle is treatment. An effective addiction treatment program can assist individuals using various types of therapy to identify and heal the fundamental reason for their addiction while teaching coping skills to prevent relapse.

Some treatment programs offer counseling services and peer-to-peer support groups for family members or friends to support long-term recovery after treatment.


Recovery is the last stage of the addiction cycle, with the goal of relapse prevention. The occurrence of relapse does not indicate the failure of the individual. Comparing relapse to other chronic conditi ons, such as hypertension or asthma, is beneficial because the relapse rates of all three are similar.

The cycle of addiction can feel like a revolving door. To break the cycle, the person struggling with addiction must become abstinent and choose to make life changes. Continuing care after treatment is essential for an effective and long-lasting recovery.

Understanding the distinctive stages in the cycle of addiction is vital in helping you recognize how substance use can develop into something that damages relationships, sense of self, and overall health. If you or a loved one struggles with alcohol or drug addiction, Present Moments Recovery can help. Our treatment center is located in San Diego, California, and provides an individualized and comprehensive approach to addiction with many levels of care to ensure a successful recovery. We focus on extended treatment that is less intensive to promote long-term recovery. From detoxification programs to outpatient programs and aftercare, we can guide you to form a firm foundation for your sobriety. At our family-run treatment center, you will be able to talk with therapists one-on-one, ensuring that your needs are fulfilled. Call us today and learn about our services and recover in the present moment at (619) 363-4767.



Read Full Bio
Mark G
Mark Gladden brings both personal and professional experience to his role as co-founder of Present Moments Recovery. Now in long-term recovery himself after struggling with addiction for years, Mark understands firsthand the challenges men face in achieving and maintaining sobriety. It was this insight, combined with a desire to help others, that led Mark to establish Present Moments Recovery.

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