What Does “Cycle of Addiction” Mean?

What Does “Cycle of Addiction” Mean?

In recovery, the “cycle of addiction” speaks to the recurring behavioral and mental patterns that prevent an individual struggling with addiction from fully recovering and remaining sober. These recurring stages are called a cycle because unless the pattern is interrupted, the addicted person is likely to remain trapped in the same predictable behavior patterns.

Learning about the cycle of addiction in recovery can help you to understand your behavior surrounding addiction. It can also help you identify ways to interrupt your own cycle of addiction to prevent relapse. Explore the important elements of the cycle of addiction and find out how recovery treatment can help you break free.

What is the Cycle of Addiction?

how to get startedThe cycle of addiction is a cyclical pattern of thoughts and actions that repeat in those struggling with addiction. Depending on the source, each stage of the cycle has a different name; however, the overall pattern of behaviors is the same.

The stages move through a predictable pattern of internal emotional triggers leading to outward action, followed by internal feelings of shame and guilt. The addicted person then stops using for a time, creating a false sense of security. Eventually, they will experience another internal trigger and repeat the cycle unless they seek treatment.

Stages of the Addiction Cycle

A deeper look at the addiction cycle provides insight into what occurs during each stage. The stages of the cycle of addiction are internal frustration, fantasizing, obsessing, substance abuse, loss of control, guilt about using, stopping usage, and a calm, inactive-addictive period.

Internal Frustration

During this phase, you begin to feel internal pain or frustration. This can be caused by emotional triggers, unresolved trauma, or the stress of everyday life. When these feelings arise, you feel anxious, depressed, or angry, and your brain begins to look for a way to relieve the stress.


To stop feeling negative emotions, you begin to fantasize about using your substance of choice. You start to imagine the relief that you believe will come from using and allow yourself to daydream about how to get a hold of the drugs or alcohol.


During this stage, your brain becomes hyper-focused on using drugs or alcohol. Rather than simply fantasizing about it, you become obsessed with the idea. It may feel like you cannot think about anything else. You start to plan exactly how you will obtain the substance, and it becomes a mission that you must achieve to find relief.

Substance Abuse/Relapse

Making Amends in RecoveryThis is the acting-out stage of the addiction cycle. You seek out and actively use whatever substance you have been obsessing about. If you are in recovery, this stage signifies a relapse and signals a chance for you to interrupt the cycle before you lose control.

Loss of Control

After using, you may experience a loss of control over your addiction. During this stage, substance abuse feels compulsive, almost as if you are powerless to stop it. You may fall back into old behavioral and thinking patterns, which encourage you to keep using to dull the pain.

Guilt and Shame

During the next stage of the cycle, you feel guilt and shame over your substance usage. You feel upset and dissatisfied with your actions, and you realize on some level that the substance is not helping you; rather, it is creating more problems in your relationships and life in general.

Stopping Using

Following intense feelings of shame and guilt, you may stop using. If you are not in recovery, this may mean you quit cold turkey and promise not to use it again. If you seek treatment, you may throw yourself into a treatment plan to get and stay clean.


The last stage in the addiction cycle is inactivity. For a period, you feel as if the risk of relapse has passed. Things are going well, and you feel like you’ve gotten out of the cycle. Unfortunately, without addiction treatment, this stage will end when you begin to experience emotional issues, and the entire cycle is likely to repeat.

The stages of the cycle of addiction are experienced differently by those with various substance abuse disorders. For instance, someone who tends to binge when they use may go through these stages for several weeks or months. An addicted person who uses daily might cycle through these stages every day or even multiple times during the day.

Additionally, the stages of addiction often overlap, rather than appear distinctly separate for the addicted person.

How Does Recovery Treatment Help?

Current research indicates that the brains of people who struggle with addiction are wired differently than neurotypical brains. Addiction is a chronic brain disease that causes neuroadaptations, or changes in the brain’s structure, which trap addicts in the repetitive cycle of addiction.

To interrupt the cycle of addiction, it is best to approach recovery with a well-rounded, personalized treatment plan that includes medication and cognitive behavioral therapy. Medication allows recovering addicts to manage physical symptoms of withdrawal to address the mental and behavioral aspects of the cycle.

Seek Treatment to Interrupt the Cycle of Addiction

When you seek addiction treatment, you interrupt the addiction cycle and allow yourself to create new responses to emotional triggers. As you learn your addiction cycle and what triggers you to use, you can better prepare yourself for these feelings and put a plan in place so you stay sober rather than staying trapped in the addictive cycle.

Written by Sergey Zhitar, MD Medical Director

Native of Moldova, Dr. Zhitar is Board Certified in Addiction Medicine as well as Internal Medicine and completed his training at UPMC Shadyside, Pittsburgh, PA in 2000.