According to the American Psychological Association (APA), addiction is a chronic brain disorder that affects an individual’s sense of pleasure, motivation, and memory. While there are psychological, biological, environmental, and social factors that can play into addiction, it is well-known that a large portion of the risk for addiction stems from genetics.

Brain changes involving alterations in the pre-frontal cortex and limbic system can lead to increased cravings for substances that elicit positive or calming feelings and can impair a person’s ability to successfully regulate the impulse to seek out these sources, despite any awareness of the harm they may cause.

Common Phases of the Addiction Cycle

There are many types of addiction (alcohol, drugs, sex, gambling, overeating, overspending, etc.) and each type follows a consistent cycle of phases that become increasingly difficult to overcome. Depending on the person and their particular addiction, each phase may take a short or long time to develop. However, even though each phase may differ in its duration, they generally progress in a repetitive pattern until some form of treatment takes place to intervene and alleviate the addiction.

Initial Use

Addictive substances are first introduced to people in many different ways. It can happen through something as common as starting a new prescription drug to manage pain, through peer pressure to try an illicit drug, or even celebrating one’s twenty-first birthday with an alcoholic beverage. Regardless of what exactly led to the first encounter, the Mayo Clinic describes several risk factors that might lead someone to have a higher risk of addiction. These risk factors include depression, social issues and problems, enabling family members or peers, abuse or neglect, family history of substance abuse or other mental disorders.

Continued Use / Abuse

At this stage of the cycle of addiction, the individual continues to use the substance for various reasons. They could be continuing to take a prescription drug for pain modification or they could be binge drinking in a social situation. Often, the use of the substance “ramps up” – becoming more frequent, or more intense -using the substances in higher doses, in an attempt to mask unfavorable feelings and symptoms.


Once the individual has reached this phase of the cycle, the brain has made significant changes in response to the substance. It can no longer produce the same mental or physical effects and, as a result, the individual further increases the dosage and the frequency of use to bring about the feelings that they are seeking out. It is at this point of the addiction cycle that the brain has made a physiological change, usually involving a decrease in brain chemical production or a loss of brain chemical receptors. Over time, this physiological change leads to the next phase – dependence and addiction.

Dependence / Addiction

Because of the physiological changes in the brain, dependence and addiction become the next phase of the addiction cycle. Once an individual reaches this phase, they usually have the following symptoms:

  • Cravings for the substance
  • Spending extra time seeking out the substance and using
  • Decrease in previous social activities
  • Inability to maintain daily responsibilities
  • Relationship and family problems
  • Regular use in inappropriate settings (driving, work, school, etc.)
  • Inability to stop using the substance or experiencing withdrawal symptoms when stopping use is attempted


As with any attempt to stop substance misuse and abuse, there are withdrawal symptoms. At the withdrawal stage of the cycle of addiction, a person can expect to face symptoms such as fatigue, anxiety, irritability, nausea, tremors, or even seizures in some cases. Ultimately, the withdrawal symptoms will vary depending on the particular drug of choice, the severity of the addiction, and the individual.


The final stage of the addiction cycle is relapse, often occurring as the withdrawal symptoms become too overwhelming for the individual. In this phase, the person struggling with addiction and dependence once again seeks out the substance of choice to reclaim what they feel is a normal emotional and physical state.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.