Understanding the Addiction Cycle Apex and Breaking the Cycle

Addiction never happens overnight. It occurs in different phases from a harmless or harmful action to a full-blown dependence on a certain high. These phases make up the cycle of addiction.

Like other diseases, addiction occurs in stages. It can start with the first use of a substance but slowly change to abuse, which causes your body to build tolerance that prompts dependence and, finally, addiction. It’s essential to learn to notice the height of addiction, or the apex, to break the cycle.

The stages of the addiction cycle can take weeks, months, and even years to progress, but as long as you’re abusing drugs regularly, these phases feature with their respective effects. Read on to learn in-depth aspects of the addiction cycle and how you can break it.

The Stages of the Addiction Cycle

These stages of the addiction can be realized within a short period of regular drug use when they occur simultaneously. Within a few days of using, you might experience all the degrees of addiction and choose to break the cycle once guilt hits. But first, you need to understand this cycle if you want to beat it successfully.

Initial Use

You can start using addictive substances for many reasons. However, the way you’re genetically wired, plus the circumstances you go through, is what drives you to addiction.

Here are some reasons why people start using drugs:

  • Depression
  • Self-medication
  • Genetic vulnerability
  • Peer pressure
  • Seeking pleasure
  • Experimentation
  • Instant gratification
  • Impulsive actions
  • Improving performance

Some of the reasons may seem harmless, but the initial use of a substance is the beginning of the addiction cycle. The first use can be harmless for some people but detrimental for others in the right circumstances and lead to addiction.

Abuse/Risky Use

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), substance abuse is the harmful use of any substance. This is the second stage of the addiction cycle, where you regularly and inappropriately use a substance. For instance, if you like drinking with your buddies during the weekend, you might start binge drinking on weekdays, hurting your body or negatively affecting your life.

For harmful drugs like cocaine and heroin, the initial use of the substance is abuse in itself. These illicit drugs are highly addictive and quickly harm your body and mind. The euphoria you may seek from the drug is medically unnecessary and dangerous, hence making it abuse.

However, for alcohol, tobacco, and prescription medications, abuse can go unnoticed. You may start using the substance for social enjoyment or treatment, which is harmless, but the moment you begin seeking the ecstasy so you can self treat certain pains, you’ll enter the abuse stage.

The abuse stage may feature the following effects:

  • The use of the substance becomes a priority.
  • You begin binging on the substance.
  • You neglect responsibilities.
  • The substance becomes a reward, and you start looking forward to it regularly.

Some people fall under the cycle of addiction after their first harmless use, while others start with abuse. (Source: WHO)


Tolerance is a reduced response to a particular dosage of a substance. You can develop a tolerance for illicit drugs and even conventional prescription drugs. While tolerance in itself isn’t an addiction, it is part of the addiction cycle.

When you’re in the tolerance stage, the bliss you used to experience for a certain substance is reduced. Since you crave the high you no longer feel using a certain amount of the substance, you choose to increase the dosage. However, after your body gets used to the new dosage, you crave for more and the process recurs.

Here are three main types of substance tolerance:

  • Acute/short-term: This is repeated use of a substance over a short period. For instance, you might keep increasing two bottles of beer every day as you get used to yesterday’s high.
  • Chronic/long term: This happens when you regularly expose your body to a particular substance for several weeks and even months. If increasing the dosage isn’t providing the strong effect it used to, you might start seeking stronger administration methods like injecting the substance.
  • Learned: When you develop tolerance to a substance after using it for several months, and even years, you might always seem intoxicated. 

Tolerance to a drug changes your brain, causing it to unlearn its old responses. So, if you take a drug to numb a certain pain, you’ll keep increasing the dosage over time so the drug can keep its effect. And that leads to the next stage of addiction: dependence. (Source: Drugabuse.com)


Although most people confuse addiction with drug dependence, these two terms are distinguishable. Dependence is the adaptation of the physical body systems to a particular substance, while addiction involves mental and emotional reliance.

If you have a drug dependence and you stop using to drug suddenly, you’ll experience withdrawal symptoms that are measurable and expected. This could be a reaction to cocaine or a missed prescription of pain meds. While an addictive substance causes dependence in addiction, it isn’t usually the case in medical applications.

Dependence can be alleviated through the tapering method. This process involves gradually reducing a drug you depend on, so you can avoid severe withdrawal symptoms. Moreover, safer drugs may be used with the tapering method to reduce intense cravings.

Your body can depend on a drug to function properly. However, if you depend on a drug to feel good, it can lead to addiction


It’s in this stage where dependence on a drug becomes a chronic mental disorder with physical symptoms and behaviors. This is where you become unable to stop using a substance or doing a particular activity even when it’s bringing harm.

The main signs of addiction include:

  • Seeking enjoyment in something without control.
  • Losing interest in anything that doesn’t include the addictive substance or activity.
  • Being secretive about any issues related to addiction.
  • Taking risks while seeking the thrill in the drug or activity.
  • Engaging in the drug or activity beyond the anticipated limit.
  • Unreasonably spending resources to seek a drug.

When you become addicted to a drug or activity, you feel more rewarded when you’re using it or engaging in it. Therefore, your brain will start prioritizing the harmful pleasure-seeking activities over healthy ones. 

In this stage, the addict experiences two main things that keep them going back to the drug or activity they seek pleasure from: fantasy and apex or climax.


The longing for a drug or activity makes an addict imagine the high they’ll feel once they acquire a drug or perform a certain activity. This is where you may decide to drive to your dealer even in the middle of the night.

This fantasy doesn’t end when you acquire the drug, so if you’re a heroin addict, you inject and start feeling the thrill you’ve been seeking. You wish to be in the moment so badly because that high will end soon in a climax you dread.


When bliss ends after the drug effects wear out, you might start feeling all kinds of misery. After the fantasy of the feel-good effect of a drug on you, the bad feelings that you’ve been escaping flood back. 

If it’s depression, it becomes unbearable again. If you’ve been numbing the pain of loss, you start feeling it again. The emptiness you wanted to expel comes back, and you realize that the fix you’ve been looking forward to wasn’t a solution after all. This can bring up several emotions, the main one being guilt.

(Sources: Medical News Today, American Psychiatric Association, and Seattle Christian Counseling)


Since you know what’s right and wrong, you might experience guilt after climaxing. This is okay since it means that you’ve accepted that what you’re doing is wrong, which can lead to a readiness to seek change.

Guilt urges you to stop the addiction. However, it may sometimes be accompanied by shame that can make you feel like a failure and possibly cause you to do drugs even more often.

On the other hand, guilt may send you to the road of recovery. Therefore, even when you feel you can’t stop the addiction, it’s best to keep acknowledging that what you’re doing is harming your life. This way, you can get to the next step — cessation.


As you struggle with guilt, you might find yourself trying to stop. This could be through self-improvement or going to rehab. Either way, stopping addiction isn’t an easy process. So, due to various circumstances, you might find yourself in relapse.


After trying to abstain from addiction, there is a high possibility that you may relapse. This stage is prompted by unbearable cravings and other withdrawal symptoms, plus an inability to properly deal with the issue that caused addiction in the first place.

Here are some causes of relapse:

  • Loneliness: If you lack a support system as you try stopping your addictive behavior, you might make some unhealthy decisions that take you back to where you started.
  • Peer pressure: If you continue hanging around friends who have a substance abuse problem, you might end up being sucked back into your old ways.
  • Stress: To alleviate stress, you may turn to the substance, so you can feel good again.
  • Environmental stimulants: If you haven’t taken proper recovery measures, merely sensing your addictive substance or activity can trigger a relapse.

(Sources: Very Well Mind and Michigan Health)

Relapsing is common because before an addict finds the best solutions to their problem, they’re bound to make mistakes. If an addict doesn’t get back to recovery again, they go back to the initial use stage, and the addiction cycle takes its course again.

Fortunately, relapsing is just another step to recovery for an addict. What matters is choosing to break the cycle of addiction again.

(Sources: Recovery Connection, National Center for Biotechnology Addiction, and American Addiction Centers )

How to Break the Cycle of Addiction

Breaking the addiction cycle almost always needs professional help. This prompts successful but also long term results that addicts desire. However, there are many ways to end the addiction cycle:

Acknowledge You Have a Problem

No matter what type of addiction you have, you could be in the denial stage. Or maybe you haven’t yet recognized the signs of addiction in yourself. Either way, you have to reach an acknowledgment state where you agree that you have a problem, so you can be open to all the solutions that can help you break the cycle.

If in doubt, ask yourself the following questions to determine whether you’re an addict:

  • Do I illegally use certain drugs to relieve stress?
  • Does my drug use make me forget my priorities?
  • Do I drink or use drugs more than other people?
  • Do I think I can’t live without drugs?
  • Do I sometimes drink alcohol or use other drugs more than I intended?
  • Do I use more drugs than is deemed healthy?
  • Do I go to great, even dangerous, lengths to access or use drugs?
  • Have my dosages escalated dramatically since my first use?
  • Is it a must for me to use drugs to have fun?

If your answer is yes to most, if not all, then you’re an addict. This doesn’t just apply to drugs alone because the use of something in excess can easily bring you into the addiction loop. For you to understand whether you’re an addict or not, you have to spot the lies addiction can tell you.

This is how denial lies to you:

  • I am not addicted to anything; I just like doing drugs/sex/gambling so much.
  • I can stop doing this anytime, so it isn’t a problem. I just don’t want to yet.
  • People think I’m spending unreasonable amounts of money on this, but they don’t understand. I like it, and this is my money anyway.
  • I am in control although my family and friends tell me I have a problem.
  • I am too strong-willed/smart/woke/sensible/responsible to be addicted.
  • I take care of my bills, and of other people’s financial needs, so there’s no way I can be addicted.
  • This is just a phase. Once I decide I don’t want to do this anymore, that’s it.
  • It is not that bad.
  • Other people use more than I do.
  • I am stressed a little and sometimes need this to help me feel good.
  • I can’t do this without alcohol or drugs.
  • My drug use only affects me.
  • No one close to me ever sees me high.

Changing is not something humans are born to love — especially changes that require a lot of work to adapt. That’s why you might try to minimize, rationalize your problem, and downright lie to yourself, so you can protect yourself from the consequences you have to face the moment you say, “Yes, I am addicted to this.”

But admitting you are an addict is the only way you are going to accept change and seek the path to recovery. Even though you’ll still be struggling with stopping the addiction cycle, you can take steps that lead to sobriety.

(Sources: Psychology Today and Very Well Mind)

Seek Self-awareness

Self-awareness is essential in addiction recovery. It helps you observe your feelings, thoughts, and also what’s happening around you. This interrupts the addiction cycle since it works by making you oblivious of what you think or do and how everything around you and in you affects you.

Here’s how you can become more self-aware:

Schedule Time for Self-reflection

Self-reflection is one of the key methods of understanding oneself. Since humans are prone to skipping the practice as life unfolds, it’s important to set a particular time you’ll be reflecting on who you are and how you behave in this world.

Here are some questions you need to answer during self-reflection:

  • What prompted my addiction?
  • Why do I abuse this drug even though I know it’s harmful?
  • What was my life like before? What made me happy?
  • What triggers me to use?
  • Who makes me feel like using?
  • Why do I think I can’t stop this addiction?
  • Who do I blame for this problem?
  • What am I scared of?
  • Do I think I matter?
  • Why don’t I think I matter?
  • What are the positive things I think about myself?
  • What are the negative things I think about myself?
  • Am I true to myself?
  • What’s the worst thing that can happen if I stop using it?
  • What does using this drug make me feel?
  • What do I feel when I am not using drugs?

Self-introspection is the source of answers deeply buried in you. Once you start asking yourself about yourself, you might start unraveling truths you never imagined you could find. But remember, when self-reflecting, you must promise to be true to yourself.

While it’s advisable to do this regularly, it’s not a must to make it a daily practice. You can set particular times of the week and do all you can to be alone in silence.

Pay Attention to Your Reactions

While you go about your day, remember to observe your reactions to the various situations you encounter. The response could be physical or emotional, so make sure you don’t miss it.

If a situation makes you nervous, for instance, you might feel the tension in your body and increased heart rate as your anxiety heightens. This will show you what you might be afraid of or incite any other feeling you can understand. If it’s one of the things that trigger harmful cravings, you can be open to recovery strategies for the specific circumstance.

As you become more attentive to your behaviors, it gets easier to choose remedies for your destructive motivations. If you notice that you dread a particular conversation and that triggers anger, instead of burying that stress in drugs, you can choose to step away and meditate.

Discover and Debunk Negative Beliefs

Habits are often ingrained in belief systems. Beliefs are assumptions about yourself that drive your behaviors and perceptions. You always are what you think, so discovering that will boost your self-awareness.

Beliefs are what make you happy or unhappy, consistently positive or negative, of good character or bad. And even if you don’t realize it, to break the addiction cycle, you must interrupt some negative belief systems that lead you to use drugs.

You can increase self-awareness by discovering beliefs based on:

  • Your early experiences: How traumatic experiences made you think about yourself or if criticism or comparison to others makes you think negatively about yourself.
  • Unnecessary assumptions: “No one understands me,” “I’m inferior,” “I am worthless because someone thinks so,” “I’m a bad person that’s why I am an addict,” “I was born a junkie, I can never fix it.”
  • Negative experience: “He left me because I am worthless,” “He said I am useless, and I think it’s true,” “Life sucks, so why bother.”
  • Chronic bad habits you’ve tried eliminating: “I’ll never change because I’ve always been like this,” “This is just who I am,” “I wish I were born as someone else,” “I can’t be as disciplined as they are,” “Something is just wrong with me.”

These thoughts create a never-ending negative thought pattern that sends you back to the addiction cycle. However, if you interrupt the negative thought loop, you also break the cycle of addiction, and gradually, you’ll master the path to recovery.

Start Journaling

As you practice self-awareness, you need to document your progress by journaling. It’s best to commit to writing every day at a particular time. You can put the journal beside your bed and always journal before sleeping. As you write, you’ll get to know yourself better, get more focused, and progress towards recovery.

Seek Feedback

You might not notice things about yourself, but people can point them out. Whether positive or negative, ask people around you to state any strengths and weaknesses they think you have. Be prepared for some painful, brutal truths and even assumptions, but don’t act defensively. 

In doing this, you can learn about yourself through other people’s eyes and determine whether how they view is true to who you are — and what you can do with that information for positive transformation.

Talk to a Therapist

One of the best ways of dealing with anything in life is by talking it out to someone ready to listen and react objectively. In a therapy session, you’re welcome to tell your story without worrying about who’ll know or whose feelings you might hurt.

Addiction recovery treatments involve therapy as well, but if you’re out of rehab or have yet to enroll, a therapist can help you with some problem solving so you can make better decisions from now. 

As you unearth the story of your life, you might notice some things on your own, and your therapist can also help you put things into perspective. This way, you can become more self-aware and break the cycle of addiction. You can learn how to make the best out of therapy and apply the lessons for recovery success. (Source: Psychology Today)

Get Professional Treatment

Recovery through professional treatment is one of the best ways to break the addiction cycle. Self-improvement is good, but when starting from rock-bottom, it’s challenging to figure out the best way to break the addiction cycle for your particular situation.

Recovery centers have research-backed solutions that have helped people break the cycle of addiction. From the initial use to the relapse stage, you’ll find professionals ready to come up with the most effective treatment plan for you. Moreover, you’ll get other people who are enthusiastic about recovery, and their influence will strengthen your habits as well.

Find a Mentor

Although some people ignore this, a mentor is essential in breaking the cycle of addiction. You can rely on them for guidance and support during recovery as well, so you don’t relapse. 

When finding a mentor, you can choose someone you respect from the treatment center or a former addict who’s been doing well and can help you do the same. While you need someone with experience with addiction, you can also seek support and guidance from a particular family member or a religious leader who can help you redirect your moral compass.

Here are some qualities of a good addiction recovery mentor to look for:

  • Enthusiasm to help others recover
  • An interest to commit to supporting you when the need arises
  • A friendly character with the ability to communicate brutal truths constructively
  • Has experience working with addiction recovery individuals
  • Has relatable experiences 

However, when you relapse or experience setbacks in your recovery journey, don’t place blames on your mentor. Here are some tips for a healthy relationship with your mentor:

  • Understand the purpose of your mentor: Most mentors are simply there to help you set up problem-solving goals and keep you accountable. Discuss the role of your mentor with them, so you both have clear expectations.
  • Open up to your mentor: You can discuss anything relevant to your addiction recovery with your mentor. That’s why it should be a friendly person you respect and trust.
  • Create a schedule for in-person meetups with your mentor: This helps you both catch up with your progress in a streamlined manner.
  • Bond over things they are comfortable with: You can invite them for your 12-step meetings, go for dinner, grab a coffee, among other activities they’d like to be involved in.
  • Don’t expect your mentor to solve your addiction: Your mentor is there to listen and guide you from their experience. Although they may influence you, they aren’t responsible for your failure and successes.

(Sources: Transcend and Addiction Blog)


Understanding the addiction cycle is critical to breaking it. The first time you use a drug to make you feel good despite the consequences, it puts you at risk of getting sucked into the cycle of addiction. You might try to stop but end up going through the same stages repeatedly. However, don’t lose hope because, with self-improvement, professional treatment, and other positive influences, you’ll manage to break the cycle and claim back your life.

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