Cirque Lodge > Blog > Addiction > The Addiction Cycle

Addiction is defined as "the fact or condition of being addicted to a particular substance or activity." As the definition suggests, addiction is not limited to drugs or alcohol. A person can become addicted to many things, for example, alcohol, drugs, or social media.

While we are often led to believe that addiction happens instantaneously at the first point of use, the reality is much more complex. While it is possible for this to occur, research has shown that there is a cycle of addiction.

Understanding the addiction cycle can help people prevent addiction from occurring in their lives. It can also help people already struggling with addiction to understand where they are in the cycle, what kind of addiction treatment they need, and how they can prevent relapse.

The Stages of The Addiction Cycle

The addiction cycle has six stages. There is no exact timeline for how these stages can unfold as this varies from person to person. It could happen over a period of weeks, months, or years. The stages of addiction are:

  • Initial use
  • Abusing the substance/activity
  • Building up a tolerance
  • Dependence on the substance/activity
  • Addiction
  • Relapse

A person suffering from substance use disorder can believe they have healed the addiction and can fall into a false sense of security. This is why it is crucial to be aware of the final stage in the chronic cycle: relapse.

Initial Use

For the addiction cycle to begin, there has to be a period of initial use. The period of initial use can occur under several circumstances. Examples of initial use include:

  • A person is prescribed an addictive prescription drug to manage pain. Some prescription medications which are medically given for pain relief are highly addictive opioids. One such example is the prescription drug oxycodone. A person may begin taking the drug to find relief from physical pain and become physically or psychologically dependent.
  • A social setting. Young people in particular are at high risk of developing an addiction. Teenagers or college students may try an alcoholic beverage or a recreational drug for the first time in a social setting. This could be by choice or as a result of peer pressure.

The first time someone tries the substance can seem harmless, especially if the person is surrounded by other people doing it. Excessive alcohol consumption, especially among the young, is often normalized in society.

People struggling with social anxiety can often find relief by drinking alcohol in social settings. This seemingly harmless first attempt can, over time, develop into alcohol addiction.

Marijuana is often referred to as a 'gateway drug', as initially, it can seem harmless. However, over time, a person may gravitate from smoking marijuana to taking another illicit drug.

A person in the first stage may not consider that using alcohol or drugs recreationally can develop into a substance use disorder. They could use the substance once without it affecting their everyday life.


The next stage in the cycle of addiction is substance abuse. After initially trying drugs or alcohol, a person could start doing it more regularly and in higher doses. Some examples of compulsive use are:

  • A person taking a prescription drug increases the usual dose
  • A person begins binge drinking alcohol
  • A person starts taking other drugs as well as the initial substance

If someone seeks addiction treatment at this stage, it is most effective. Substance abuse usually progresses much further before this happens.

Building Up A Tolerence

After repeated use of the drug or alcohol, the brain changes. The brain chemical receptors begin to adapt to the typical dose taken of the substance, which results in the person not getting the usual high. This is called tolerance.

An example of tolerance is a person who is usually intoxicated by three drinks may now need four or five to feel the same level of intoxication. It works the same way with drug addiction, with a person needing to take more than usual to achieve the same euphoric response.

Building a tolerance is a dangerous stage in the cycle of addiction, as a person will begin to increase the dose of the substance. This can result in heavy substance abuse and can increase the likelihood of an overdose.


A drug overdose is a medical emergency. It can occur at any stage in the cycle of addiction. Once someone develops a tolerance to the substance and requires more drugs to get the same effect, the risk is increased.

If someone is addicted to medically prescribed medications and can no longer legally obtain them, they could seek to buy illicit drugs. Buying illegal drugs further increases the risk of overdose due to drug impurity.

Illegal drugs are often mixed with powerful substances such as fentanyl. Ingesting a substance like fentanyl unknowingly can increase the chances of overdosing. What may seem like the usual dose of the addictive substance, could actually be a lethal dose of something else.

Physical Dependence

The next stage of the cycle of addiction is developing a physical dependence on the substance. Through repeated drug use, the brain chemical production adapts to the substance being in the system. This physiological change leads to a person being unable to stop without experiencing withdrawal symptoms.

Depending on the substance, withdrawal symptoms can be severe. In some cases, they can be life-threatening. For this reason, drug dependence is very difficult to overcome alone. It is recommended that a person who has reached this stage seek addiction treatment.


Once a person has developed a physical dependence on a substance, stopping the substance suddenly can lead to extreme withdrawal symptoms. This is true for both alcohol addiction and drug use.

The physiological change of the drug being removed from the body can cause the body to go into shock, especially if the substance use has occurred over a long period of time.

For certain drugs, such as opioids, a person may need a form of addiction treatment known as a medically-assisted detox. Medical detox is required to safely remove the substance from the system. A medical professional will supervise the treatment, helping to ease the withdrawal symptoms.

Withdrawal Symptoms

Withdrawal symptoms from substance abuse can be severe and a person may be unable to function properly. Some of the common withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Shakes
  • Tremors
  • Sweating
  • Chills
  • Negative emotions
  • Restlessness
  • Disturbed sleep
  • Anxiety
  • Heart palpitations
  • Aches and pains
  • Drug/alcohol cravings

On a small scale, alcohol consumption can cause withdrawal symptoms in the form of a hangover. However, what many people don't know is alcohol addiction and repeated alcohol abuse can result in a physical dependency.

In some cases, alcohol withdrawal can be life-threatening. Someone who has abused alcohol for a long period of time should seek treatment rather than attempting to detox themselves.


As a person progresses through the multiple stages, they eventually reach the stage of addiction. Addiction is a chronic brain disorder that is listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). It is important to remember that addiction is a mental health condition.

At this stage of the addiction cycle, a person may struggle to stop. They may take more of the substance than they planned. At a certain point, the addiction will start to disrupt their life, causing family problems and issues at work. The person suffering may engage in compulsive behavior that is dangerous as a result of the substance. For example, they may drive under the influence of alcohol or a drug, or try operating machinery.


A person may make multiple attempts to overcome the addiction before they manage to overcome it successfully. Addiction is a powerful disease that is not easy to overcome without professional help. Inability to overcome addictive behavior is in no way reflective of a person's character.

People can relapse for a number of different reasons. They could be unable to cope with the withdrawal symptoms, they could experience emotional triggers, or struggle with other mental health issues.

Risk Factors of Addiction

There are no exact criteria for who will struggle with an alcohol or drug addiction. It can affect any race, age, or gender. However, there are studies that show certain risk factors. These are:

  • Women, as women are more likely to suffer from chronic pain
  • Young people under the age of thirty
  • People struggling with mental health issues
  • People have family members that struggle with alcohol addiction
  • People with a family history of drug abuse
  • People who have had legal trouble in the past

Those struggling with other mental health issues are at a higher risk of developing an addiction due to the temporary relief alcohol or drugs can provide. In the initial stage of addiction, the person finds respite from emotional pain and this can lead to abuse.

Professional Treatment

No matter what stage of an addiction you are at, it is important to seek help. There are many different types of addiction treatment. It is advisable to get professional medical advice to decide the correct treatment process for you.

Many people who have struggled with addiction have found support groups can be very beneficial in preventing relapse, due to the emotional support and understanding they provide.

At Cirque Lodge, we have many addiction treatment options available. Speak with us today to find the right treatment plan for you.

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