Understanding The Addiction Cycle

When we’re trapped in the cycle of addiction, it can be difficult to see light at the end of the tunnel.

March 25, 2021

Patterns Of Addiction

It’s no accident people sometimes speak of an “addiction spiral” – it accurately captures the notion that addiction is often experienced as a repetitive cycle, and that it escalates over time. 

“Addiction is a primary, chronic disease of the brain – it hijacks our incentive systems and clouds our longer-term thinking, playing off our experiences of pain, trauma and neurological rewards,” says Di Young, an addiction specialist at Sydney’s South Pacific Private.

While every person’s experience is different, Young says we tend to follow similar patterns when we’re experiencing addiction. This may include experiencing growing dependence, powerful cravings, withdrawal symptoms, a compulsion to keep using, increasing tolerance and escalations in frequency, substances, dosages or behaviour.

Whether we’re addicted to a substance (such as prescription medicationalcohol or drugs) or a behavior (such as gamblingsex or romantic entanglements) the addiction cycle often starts out as fantasy, often mixed in with denial that it’s a problem or justifications for getting a fix. Often, our triggers for this can be related to trauma and family or relationship issues.

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“After fantasy comes obsession, when we can’t stop thinking about it or doing it,” Young says. “Then comes frustration, either because it’s not what we needed, we didn’t get ‘enough’, or because we need to escalate our behavior to get the same fix.

“Eventually, we get hit by the shame, guilt and remorse, often because the impacts of our usage are brought home to us by our thoughts or an event,” she says. “We’ll either promise we’ll never do it again or we’ll change how we ‘do it’ and the outcome this time will be different – but it won’t be, it’ll be worse.”

“Alternatively, we’ll start using again to avoid the shame and guilt – which will inevitably be followed again by the same out-of-control spiral,” Young says. “And around we go on the merry-go-round of denial, starting again with the fantasies. It can go on for years or even decades if left untreated. It continues until we break the cycle, which means we change our behaviour.”

The Addiction Cycle:

  • We fantasise about alcohol and/or drugs, gambling, sex, food, relationships.
  • We obsess – you will tell yourself: “I need them now”.
  • We become frustrated – you might ask yourself: “What will I do?”
  • We use – alcohol and/or drugs, gambling, sex, food, relationships.
  • We experience shame, guilt and remorse.
  • We promise – “I’ll  never do that again.”
  • Eventually, we end up back at the fantasy stage 

Breaking The Cycle

Just as addiction often follows a pretty regular process, so does breaking the cycle, Young says. Not only has she helped hundreds of clients through recovery, but she’s been through it herself and is now decades into her sobriety. 

“The process for recovery also follows a pattern, but it can often be a fragile one. People often get to stage two or three but something happens or they lose their nerve and can slip back into the addiction cycle,” Young says. “It can take us a few goes to get it to stick. It can take us time to settle into the recovery way of life – but if we stay with it, we can create a life so fulfilling that we don’t want to use again or numb our feelings. We are walking into freedom.”

The Recovery Process:

  • We contemplate changing – thinking about changing is terrifying for us.
  • We prepare to change – we take action to mentally and physically prepare to stop.
  • We take action – we reach out for help, to family, friends or professionals.
  • We create a new lifestyle – maintain what we have learned as we begin our recovery – this usually includes connecting with a 12-step program.

“It’s important to make sure you’re supporting yourself and getting the support you need during the recovery process,” Young says. “Bringing family members and loved ones into your recovery and sharing your learning can be an important part of that.”

Addiction Affects Us All: Support for Families

Making a new lifestyle stick can be an enormous challenge, she says. We need to adapt to new habits, avoid old triggers, work out new forms of self-care and social support and maintain our connection to others who are also in recovery.

Young says it’s also important to realise that relapse happens, and it’s not the end of the world. “Any addiction treatment centre worth their salt will help you prepare a relapse recovery plan,” she says. “They’ll help you to avoid and manage triggers and identify the warning signs that the cycle might be starting again, and make sure you know what to do to get back on the recovery cycle as soon as possible.”

If you’re seeking support to end the addiction cycle, South Pacific Private is here to help. As a fully accredited private hospital in Sydney’s Northern Beaches, our rehab program provides comprehensive, holistic treatment for addiction, anxiety, depression and trauma. Visit our support page to learn more or call us now on 1800 063 332.

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