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The Addiction Cycle: Different Stages of Addiction

There’s a misconception among some people that addiction is a character flaw. However, nobody engages in substance use or activities like gambling, aiming to become hooked. Often, people start with experimentation and occasional use, and eventually, they become addicted.

However, addiction doesn’t happen overnight. It can take weeks, months, or even years to develop. In this post, we’ll explore the cycle of addiction and how to overcome addiction.

What Is the Cycle of Addiction?

While the process of becoming addicted varies from person to person, there are primarily six stages of addiction most people undergo. These six stages of the addiction cycle include:

  • Initial use
  • Abuse
  • Tolerance
  • Dependence
  • Addiction
  • Relapse

Next, we’ll explore each of these stages.

1. Initial Use

Addiction usually starts with trying out an activity or substance first. There are multiple ways one can become initiated. It can be through something as seemingly innocuous as getting a prescription to alleviate pain or trying out alcohol for the first time after attaining the minimum legal drinking age (MLDA) of 21.

However, the likelihood of becoming addicted varies from individual to individual. Some risk factors that make certain people more predisposed to become addicted include:

  • Family history of addiction
  • Mental health issues, such as depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Lack of a strong support system
  • Peer pressure
  • Using highly addictive drugs like opioids or stimulants

Risk Factors for Addiction

Nonetheless, while these risk factors may make certain individuals more susceptible to becoming addicted, most individuals become addicted after undergoing the subsequent stages of the addiction cycle.

2. Abuse

In the second stage of addiction, the individual starts engaging in the activity or using the substance regularly to induce feelings of euphoria. This typically leads to increased consumption or engagement.

While some individuals at this stage may be able to stop using the addictive substance or engaging in the addictive activity, others may move on to the next stage: tolerance.

3. Tolerance

At the third stage of the addiction cycle, the body and brain become accustomed to the addictive behavior or substance. Tolerance develops when the brain changes in response to the addictive behavior or substance, requiring larger amounts to induce the same pleasurable effects.

In some cases, some individuals may even start using more addictive substances to intensify the high. For example, an individual who drinks regularly may start using cocaine.

For opioids, this could happen because the brain cells that have opioid receptors on them experience reduced sensitivity to opioid stimulation. Over time, the brain adapts to the drug and becomes less responsive to its effects, leading to the next stage of the cycle of addiction: dependence.

4. Dependence

At this stage, individuals become dependent on having the substance or engaging in the behavior to function properly. For instance, an individual who has been using methamphetamine or heroin for a long time may find it difficult to feel pleasure without the drug.

Common signs of the dependence stage include:

  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms like body tremors, nausea, headaches, insomnia, and irritability
  • Having intense urges to consume the addictive substance or engage in addictive activity
  • Inability to go without the substance or engage in the activity for a long time

5. Addiction

Addiction is a chronic brain disorder that involves obsessive seeking and consumption of a substance or engagement in an activity despite its negative repercussions.

There are two main types of addiction:

  • Substance addiction or substance use disorders (SUDs)
  • Non-substance addiction or behavioral addictions

Substance Addictions

Substance addictions occur due to addiction to prescription meds or non-medicinal drugs, such as alcohol, marijuana, tobacco, opioids, and cocaine.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), there are 11 signs and symptoms of substance addiction. They include:

  • Using more of the substance than originally intended
  • Spending a large amount of time finding, using, or recovering from the substance
  • Intense urge to use the substance
  • Requiring more of the substance to achieve the same effect
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when the substance isn’t used
  • Inability to complete tasks at home, work, or school due to substance use
  • Recurring thoughts of reducing intake or quitting substance use but being unable to
  • Recurrent use of the substance despite the relationship problems it causes
  • Continued use of the substance despite the physical or mental health problems it causes, such as insomnia, depression, or weight loss
  • Quitting or reducing time spent on hobbies or interests due to substance use
  • Using the substance in risky settings or situations, such as when driving or operating heavy machinery

The DSM-5 classifies substance addictions as mild, moderate, or severe based on the number of symptoms exhibited within a year. Two or more symptoms indicate a mild SUD, four or five symptoms indicate a moderate SUD and six or more symptoms indicate a severe one.

If you or a loved one has been using an addictive substance and has exhibited six or more of the above symptoms within the past year, consider visiting an addiction treatment center.

Non-Substance Addictions

Non-substance addictions can develop due to engagement in activities that stimulate the brain’s reward system, triggering the release of dopamine.

Some common non-substance addictions include gambling, compulsive eating, porn addiction, gaming addiction, and sex addiction.

The DSM-5 currently only lists gambling as a behavioral addiction due to inadequate research on other behavioral addictions. However, while other behavioral addictions other than gambling aren’t recognized as clinical disorders, they often require addiction treatment to overcome.

6. Relapse

Understanding Addiction Triggers

Staying clean or sober after undergoing addiction treatment requires tremendous willpower. As a result, many people succumb to the final stage of the addiction cycle: relapse.

At this stage, individuals stop using the substance but experience extreme withdrawals. These withdrawals may cause them to seek the substance or engage in addictive behavior, causing them to return to the dependence stage of the cycle of addiction.

However, relapsing isn’t a moral failure. It’s a normal part of the recovery process, as up to 60% of people with SUDs relapse after addiction treatment.

Fortunately, with the right addiction treatment, individuals can break free from the addiction cycle and live productive lives.

That said, the cycle of addiction varies from person to person, and not everyone progresses from the stages in a linear way or at the same pace. That’s why there’s no one-size-fits-all addiction treatment program.

Stages of the Addiction Cycle

How to Overcome the Addiction Cycle

Breaking free from the cycle of addiction may feel impossible, but it isn’t. Here are various treatment methods that can help individuals overcome addiction:


Detoxification or detox is often the preliminary step of addiction treatment, particularly for individuals experiencing extreme withdrawal symptoms due to discontinued use of alcohol, cocaine, heroin, benzodiazepines, or other addictive substances.

However, while detox purges the body of addictive substances — it isn’t sufficient — as it only treats the physical aspects of addiction.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) helps individuals overcome addiction by recognizing harmful thought patterns and avoiding situations that trigger substance abuse or engagement in addictive activities.

CBT equips individuals with healthy coping mechanisms, enabling them to avoid acting on triggers and overcome addiction.

Group Therapy

Addiction can feel like a solitary struggle. But it doesn’t have to be. Group therapy interventions like AA meetings bring together people with similar struggles.

During group therapy sessions, group members converge in safe spaces, typically led by a qualified therapist, to share their experiences and learn from each other. Group therapy sessions allow group members to follow each other’s recovery journeys, offer encouragement, and hold each other accountable, making lasting recovery more achievable.

How to Overcome the Addiction Cycle

Overcome Addiction at Honu House

Whether you or a loved one is grappling with a substance or non-substance addiction, you can count on getting the support you need at Honu House. At our Hawaii addiction treatment center, we take a holistic approach to addiction treatment by offering personalized treatment and combining various interventions, including individual, group, and alternative therapies.

We aim to help individuals not only overcome addiction but also get the tools they need to maintain sobriety and live productive and fulfilling lives after addiction treatment.

Contact us today to learn more about our Hawaii addiction treatment programs and determine the best course of action for you or a loved one.


At What Stage of the Addiction Cycle Should Treatment Begin?

Addiction treatment can begin at any stage of the addiction cycle, including the initial use stage. However, the intensity and type of treatment may vary depending on the addiction stage and personal circumstances. Consult a mental health professional to determine the best treatment plan for your needs.

What Should I Do After Discovering a Loved One Has an Addiction?

It can be pretty difficult to learn that a loved one is grappling with a substance or behavioral addiction. However, remember, addiction isn’t a moral failure. It’s a chronic brain disorder. So, if you discover that a loved one is struggling with an addiction, don’t criticize them. Instead, treat your loved one with compassion and encourage them to enroll in an addiction treatment center as soon as possible.

What Are the Available Treatments for Addiction?

There’s no one-size-fits-all addiction treatment. Addiction treatment often requires a combination of interventions, such as individual therapy, group therapy, and detoxification, depending on the severity of the condition.

Is Addiction Genetic?

Several scientific studies have shown that genes can make certain people more susceptible to becoming addicted than others. However, it’s estimated genes account for 40 to 60% of addiction risk.

What Is the Root Cause of Addiction?

There are various causes of addiction, including mental health issues, lack of a strong support system, and genetic makeup. However, there’s no single cause of addiction.

  • Author Profile Picture

    By Katrina

  • June 3, 2024

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