Understanding The Addiction Cycle

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Addiction is a chronic condition wherein a person is driven by a compulsive need to do, take, or use something, even when they know it is harmful to the body. Addiction also pushes the body to develop tolerance over time, leading the person to increase the amount of activity to feel its effects. Fortunately, addiction can be managed, treated, and prevented with the support of healthcare professionals, friends, family, and peers. In this article, you will learn more about the addiction cycle and how it affects the brain, the different phases of the addiction cycle, and effective treatment options.

What Is The Addiction Cycle?

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According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, addiction is a disease that affects the brain’s sense of reward, pleasure, memory, and motivation. Many people assume that addiction is a part of a person’s character. This makes them believe even a single drink or the onetime use of a substance can immediately become an addiction. However, this is far from the truth. It is almost always a culmination of a series of several circumstances that makes a person develop an addiction.

Addiction is often called the addiction cycle because the affected person goes through a cycle of different phases. Depending on the person, these phases may develop either within a short time or can be spread out over the years. The addiction cycle goes somewhat like this: dependence, addiction, abstinence, withdrawal, and then relapse. The person usually goes through the addiction cycle repetitively until there is some intervention or treatment. Before we learn more about the phases of the addiction cycle, let us look at some types of addiction.  

Types Of Addiction

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While a person could get addicted to anything from alcohol and drugs to food and cellphones, addiction is typically classified into two types: substance addiction and behavioral addiction. All the different things that a person could fall victim to can be classified into these two types. More information on each classification is discussed below.

Substance Addiction

Substance addiction is the most commonly observed type of addiction. It is usually progressive, has a high chance of relapse, and is characterized by compulsive and often obsessive use of a substance. This addiction is normally fueled by a never-ending cycle of tolerance and dependence.

For instance, when a person drinks alcohol regularly for a long time, the body develops a tolerance to it and requires them to increase the amount of alcohol to feel the effects. The process of trying to overcome tolerance ultimately speeds up the development of dependence. This dependence then requires the person to continue taking the substance just to feel normal. If they try to stop or cut back, addicts experience the symptoms of withdrawal. Some of the most common substances that people can get addicted to are alcohol, cigarettes, painkillers, illegal drugs, prescription drugs, and steroids, among others.

Behavioral Addiction

While this type of addiction is less common, the instances of behavioral addiction have seen a marked increase in the past decade. Here, a person gets addicted to the pleasurable feelings that certain behaviors elicit. The person then compulsively behaves in the same way repeatedly to reach the mental high that the particular behavior evokes.

A person may be diagnosed as being addicted to a behavior when he displays a loss of self-control over that behavior, irrespective of the negative consequences. Some of the most common examples of behavioral addiction observed in people include:

  • Use of cellphones
  • Gambling
  • Eating
  • Viewing pornography
  • Masturbation
  • Shopping
  • Internet browsing
  • Playing video games

How Does Addiction Affect The Brain?

Now that you’re aware of the addiction cycle and the two different types of addiction, let us now look at how addiction affects your brain. The brain is a highly adaptive organ, and this contributes immensely to the formation of addiction. Addiction then causes significant changes to the brain such as altering homeostasis (the brain’s natural balance), changing the brain’s chemistry, changing the brain’s communication patterns, and altering the structures in the brain and tampering with their function. All of these changes together play a role in a person’s addiction cycle and makes it hard to break it.  

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Phases Of The Addiction Cycle

There are five major phases of the addiction cycle: initial use or experimentation, abuse, tolerance, dependence, and relapse.

Initial Use Or Experimentation

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The addiction cycle usually starts with the decision of the victim to use a particular substance. The decision to use may be triggered by the desire to experiment or by getting a prescription for managing a health issue. It can also be due to peer pressure, which is more commonly seen with substances such as alcohol and cigarettes. Irrespective of the underlying cause, initial use is the first step of the addiction cycle.

Abuse 

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The next phase of the addiction cycle is substance abuse. Once the victim has experienced the effects of the substance, they might be tempted to try it again, sometimes in a higher dosage. This ultimately leads to them misusing it in a recurring and inappropriate manner. The World Health Organization characterizes substance abuse as using the substance in a way harmful for the body. Usually, the inclination to abuse a substance depends on the substance itself and on the way it reacts with the body.

Tolerance

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As you know by now, the brain and the body are highly adaptive. When a person uses a substance for a prolonged period of time, the brain and the body adapt to the constant influx of the substance, resulting in a tolerance. This tolerance will lead to the body no longer experiencing the same physical or mental effect that the original dosage of the substance provided. As a result, the person might increase the dosage or the frequency of use to get the same effect. Constant attempts to break the tolerance level will eventually lead to the next phase in the addiction cycle—dependence.  

Dependence Or Addiction

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As you learned before, when a person constantly breaks their tolerance levels, their body becomes dependent on the substance or behavior. This makes them unable to function properly without it. The dependence or addiction phase of the addiction cycle plays a major role in a person being unable to break free from the cycle as they are likely to face severe withdrawal symptoms that can be debilitating.

A person is dependent when they experience the following symptoms:

  • Severe cravings for the substance
  • A decrease in social activities
  • Inability to fulfill responsibilities
  • Family and relationship issues
  • Reckless use despite being aware of dangerous consequences
  • Serious withdrawal symptoms

Relapse

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This is the final phase in the addiction cycle. Relapse often occurs when the addict experiences overwhelming withdrawal symptoms, leading them to once again seek and use the substance to feel normal again. This brings them back to the start of the cycle.

Treatment Options

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Treatment options are available for people suffering from addiction, including medically assisted detoxification and behavioral counseling.

Medically Assisted Detoxification

This treatment option is highly effective at breaking substance addiction. Medically assisted detoxification helps people manage the harsh withdrawal symptoms they experience. Under the supervision of a physician, the person battling the condition is usually given certain medications as a substitute for the substance to help reduce the withdrawal effects.

The detoxification process can be done as an inpatient or an outpatient procedure. Many people with severe addiction will not recover with detoxification alone. In most cases of addiction, detoxification is the crucial first step to be taken before starting a treatment program.

Behavioral Counseling

The main aim of behavioral counseling is to make addicts understand their problem and help them address their addiction triggers. It can also involve working with the families and friends of the addicts to teach them how to cope with stressful and high-risk situations. Proper therapy is a very important treatment option as it has a high chance of preventing a person from relapsing. This option is perfect for treating behavioral addiction.  

Apart from these two major treatment options, there are other ways to help addicts break the addiction cycle. For instance, the loved ones of a person battling with addiction could stage an intervention and encourage the addict to break the cycle or get themselves enrolled in a treatment program.

Also, getting in touch with support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous can be an effective tool to recover from addiction. Several support groups also exist for people suffering from behavioral addictions, including Overeaters Anonymous and Gamblers Anonymous.

Conclusion

Addiction does not have a one-size-fits-all solution. So, if a treatment option fails or is not effective at breaking the addiction cycle, it is important to try a different one. Relapsing is not a sign of failure but is a sign the treatment method needs to be adjusted. Staying motivated throughout the process of treatment is essential to a successful recovery and the prevention of relapse. Talking to people who have successfully made a recovery can go a long way in helping you stay motivated as it will encourage you to look at the positives of not being addicted.  

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