When someone’s caught in the vicious cycle of addiction, the possibility of breaking free is often the last thing on their minds, especially when they’ve tried and failed before. The good news is that it is possible to break the cycle of addiction, no matter how daunting it may seem.
Have you ever heard anyone refer to addiction as a vicious cycle before? Addiction is often described that way because it’s cyclical and can’t be broken with goals, willpower, or effort alone. To better understand why, it’s helpful to start with the basics of drug addiction psychology.
Addiction changes the way the brain works, leading addicts to believe that the best way to deal with their problems is actually the substance contributing to their problems. To avoid having to confront those problems or unpleasant emotions, they often end up drinking or using more, which only worsens the situation, and the cycle continues.
When this happens, the brain no longer works as it should. Addicts rarely break the cycle of addiction without guidance from people who have their best interests at heart. Because it takes time for addiction to develop, it also takes time to break the cycle of addiction. The longer someone continues the ritual of addiction, the deeper entrenched it becomes, and the harder it can be to break the cycle. Fortunately, recovery is always possible.
Addiction is cyclical in nature, and it most often follows a general pattern:
1. Emotional Trigger
The cycle of addiction starts with an emotional trigger—a feeling, thought, or memory that’s often rooted in past pain or trauma. Emotional triggers can be conscious or unconscious, and it may take time for an addict to identify and understand the emotional trigger at the root of their addiction, especially when multiple triggers are involved. Ultimately, what’s fueling the cycle of addiction is the urge to suppress or shut down those unpleasant emotions or thoughts before or when they arise.
When an addict is emotionally triggered, they go into defense mode. They want to protect themselves from something unpleasant by avoiding it. Over time, their mind and body have learned that using drugs or alcohol is the best way to turn off an unpleasant thought or feeling. Based on that learned behavior, emotional triggers can quickly morph into an overwhelming craving to use drugs or alcohol.
When someone is in the throes of addiction, cravings grow so intense that they become all-consuming. It can get to the point that using drugs or alcohol becomes the most important thing in their life—even more important than life itself.
When an addict has a craving, they also often follow a specific ritual as part of the addiction. These rituals usually develop around how someone goes about procuring and using drugs or alcohol. For example, an alcoholic may always go to the same liquor store and stock up on a week’s worth of alcohol before going on a binge while a heroin addict may follow a specific procedure before shooting up.
After following their ritual, the addict uses drugs or alcohol to suppress, turn off, or ignore what’s triggering them.
It depends on the individual, but some people feel guilt immediately after drinking or using. Many end up feeling guilty about drug or alcohol use soon after, and that guilt can end up becoming an emotional trigger, causing them to drink or use more while further perpetuating the cycle of addiction.
1. Start by Identifying Addiction
Before you can break the cycle of addiction, you first have to confirm that the issue is addiction. Remember that there is no fixed timeline for how long it takes an addiction to develop. Depending on the substance in question, addiction can take hold in anywhere from a few weeks to over the course of several months or years.
If you believe addiction is a problem, it’s best to start with a professional diagnosis to confirm and decide on the next steps. Professional confirmation is particularly important when you suspect the presence of overlapping issues like depression, past trauma, or other co-occurring issues on top of addiction.
2. Balance Knowing and Not Knowing
Whether it’s a loving family member or the addict themselves, many people try to break the cycle of addiction by starting from a place of knowing. They know addiction is the issue. They know they want to beat it. They know what they’ve tried. They know what hasn’t worked in the past. While it’s important to be certain about some things, you also have to be willing to admit what you don’t know when you’re trying to break the cycle of addiction.
It’s a story we hear a lot. Someone tries rehab once and it doesn’t work. They assume that rehab doesn’t work and rule it out entirely when they try to break the addiction years later. In their minds, they “know” rehab doesn’t work, but when they don’t know where else to turn, they eventually give rehab another desperate attempt. When they find success in rehab, they realize it wasn’t that rehab didn’t work—it was the initial approach to rehab that hadn’t worked for them.
It may feel daunting at first, but it’s OK—and even advantageous—to approach addiction recovery from a place of not knowing. Just because rehab doesn’t work the first, second, third, or even fourth time doesn’t mean rehab doesn’t work. It just means you need to do a little digging into your options and keep an open mind. Be willing to admit that you aren’t sure what to do or what works and what doesn’t. Explore all of your options because there are almost always more than you think.
Rehab Is Like Wi-Fi
In our experience, finding success in rehab isn’t all that different from troubleshooting Wi-Fi when the internet goes down. You can’t immediately assume that one thing is the cause of the outage. You have to troubleshoot each part of the system and the process. First, you might restart your computer or check for updates. If that doesn’t fix it, you may reset the modem and router. Still not working? Call the provider to see if there’s a service outage in your area.
Similarly, when rehab doesn’t work, you can’t immediately jump to the conclusion that rehab is the issue. You have to step back and holistically examine your approach by assessing what’s working and what isn’t. For example, the treatment milieu may have been counterproductive to sobriety if there were toxic individuals. The treatment team may have been in flux. Maybe the addict was closed-minded to some aspect of treatment at the time. When you aren’t looking at the parts and sum of the issues, it’s much harder to break the cycle of addiction.
3. Find a Formula for Success
To break the cycle of addiction and achieve sustainable sobriety, recovery has to account for four vital areas in life:
It’s not just what you do with your body—it’s what you put into your body. Physical exercise, nutrition, and a healthy sleep cycle all play an essential role in long-term addiction recovery.
When in recovery, the brain needs to break old habits, thought patterns, and rituals by absorbing new information through education and therapy. Education and therapy are also critical for understanding thought patterns and the cycle of mental addiction.
To achieve long-term sobriety, you have to process and heal underlying traumas that may be triggering the addiction.
When you’re trying to break the cycle of addiction, you don’t have to define who’s right, but it’s instrumental to tune into what’s right for you.
At ALYST, we’ve seen the cyclical side of addiction, and we’ve developed an at-home approach to addiction recovery that breaks the cycle by customizing a recovery plan around your routine, lifestyle, and privacy. When you’re ready to break the cycle of addiction, reach out to our team, and we’ll help you take the next step.