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Understanding the Cycle of Addiction

 Understanding the cycle of addiction and its stages can be helpful for people struggling with addiction, as well as for their loved ones and healthcare providers. By recognizing the patterns and steps involved, identifying and addressing addiction more effectively may be easier.

While the relief or euphoria stage of the cycle provides temporary relief and pleasure, it leads to harmful consequences for the individual and, sometimes, their loved ones. Seeking professional help and support is often necessary to break the cycle of addiction and regain control over one's life. Click here to get help and break the cycle.

What Is the Cycle of Addiction Theory?

The theory of the cycle of addiction explains addiction as a recurrent process. Despite negative consequences, the process involves various stages contributing to a person's continued substance or behavioral use. This cycle is self-perpetuating, as each step reinforces the others and makes it more difficult for a person to break free from addiction.

The critical elements of this cycle include craving, reward, relief, and anticipation. These stages work together to create a powerful drive to continue using a substance or engaging in a behavior, even if it's detrimental.

What Are the Key Components of the Cycle of Addiction?

One version of the cycle of addiction theory is the 5-point cycle, which outlines the typical stages a person goes through when developing an addiction. These stages include experimentation, regular usage, risky usage, dependence, and addiction.


Experimentation is the first use of the substance. Some reasons for doing experimentation are peer pressure, curiosity, stress, and other reasons.

 Regular use

This is the second stage. After experimenting with a behavior or a substance, one finds the substance rewarding and pleasurable next is using it regularly. 

Risky usage  

The fourth stage is when the person continues to use the substance more frequently. They continue to engage in risky behaviors associated with the drug. 


Dependence happens when your brain and body become psychologically and physically dependent on the substance. It becomes hard to leave or stop engaging in the behavior even when willing.


Finally, you have an addiction. In this stage, you compulsively use the substance despite its negative consequences or can't stop a behavior despite its dangers to you or others. Here, the user feels unable to control their usage and may give up on stopping to use the substance altogether.

What Are the 4 Stages of the Addiction Cycle?

Another way to break down the addiction cycle is into four stages. The stages include the following.

  • Binge/intoxication
  • Withdrawal/negative affect
  • Preoccupation/anticipation
  • Relief/euphoria

The intoxication/binge stage is the initial “fun” effects of engaging in a behavior or substance use.

The withdrawal/negative stage entails adverse physical & psychological effects when you stop engaging in the cycle of intoxication. So the natural desire during this stage is to continue using and abusing. 

The preoccupation/anticipation stage entails experiencing obsessive thoughts & cravings. Every time a person wants to use a substance, they constantly expect a chance to use it. 

The relief/euphoria stage is when they get the substance or engage in the behavior, providing temporary relief from withdrawal and a sense of reward. At this stage, a person may feel a sense of relief from the physical and emotional discomfort caused by withdrawal symptoms, which can include nausea, tremors, anxiety, and insomnia. 

At any stage of this cycle, checking into an intensive outpatient treatment program is a positive step toward healing.

They may also experience a sense of euphoria or pleasure from the substance or behavior, reinforcing the desire to continue using or engaging in the behavior. Over time, this can lead to addiction, characterized by losing control over substance use or behavior and continued use despite negative consequences.

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