The National Institute on Drug Abuse defines addiction as a chronic, relapsing disorder that is marked by the tell-tale behaviors of compulsive drug seeking and continued use despite adverse consequences. Addiction also induces long-lasting changes in the brain.
Today, scientists have a deeper comprehension of the cycle of addiction and how various brain regions are impacted. Learning about this process may help you understand a loved one’s behaviors and how to interact with them. It may also help you identify when their substance use is turning into an addiction.
The Basics of the Cycle of Addiction
Depending on where you search, you will likely find that addiction has anywhere from three to seven stages. According to information from the Surgeon General, there are three main stages of the addiction cycle that are explained by neurobiological processes:
- Binge/Intoxication: A family member or friend consumes the substance and experiences rewarding or pleasurable feelings.
- Withdrawal/Negative Affect: After a period of abstinence, they experience withdrawal symptoms that can be emotional and physical. This period can vary depending on the severity of the substance use disorder.
- Preoccupation/Anticipation: The individual is preoccupied with obtaining and using drugs or alcohol.
These three stages interact in a cyclical fashion and reinforce each other. Your loved one may go through the cycle many times in one day or over a few weeks to months. Not everyone experiences the cycle in the same way. Cutting this cycle short is important, as it tends to intensify over time with continued substance use. This increases your loved one’s risk of negative consequences to their body and mind and makes it more challenging to recover.
Brain Regions Associated With Each Stage
Each stage of the addiction cycle is associated with activity in different brain regions that are connected through neural networks. The repeated use of drugs or alcohol stimulates the following parts of the brain in different ways, causing biochemical and physical changes that reinforce substance use.
The first stage is linked to the basal ganglia, which has regions involved in motivation, habit formation, and other routine behaviors. The second stage is associated with the extended amygdala. This region is important for regulating reactions to stress and negative emotions, like anxiety and irritability. It interacts with the hypothalamus, which also has a hand in controlling reactions to stress.
Finally, the prefrontal cortex is the brain region impacted by the last stage in the cycle of addiction. The prefrontal cortex is the site where complicated cognitive processes called executive function take place. The ability your family member or friend has to prioritize tasks on their to-do list, make decisions, and manage time all involves executive function. Being able to organize their thoughts and activities and regulate their actions, emotions, and impulses are also critical aspects.
Understanding Four Critical Behaviors
There are four key behaviors that are central to the addiction cycle. With a keen eye, you may be able to spot your family member or friend exhibiting them. The following behaviors do not necessarily go in this order, but they often present themselves as:
- Positive reinforcement
- Negative reinforcement
The first time a loved one uses a drug or drinks alcohol, they likely did it impulsively. This may have been because friends were doing it, or they just wanted to try it despite knowing there could be consequences. If the experience goes well, substance use can be positively reinforced, meaning that they will probably use it again.
For others, they use substances to reduce negative symptoms associated with social anxiety or depression. When the person experiences temporary relief, the behavior can be negatively reinforced, driving the person to continue use. Positive and negative reinforcement can also occur due to social and environmental factors.
With repeated use, your loved one’s tolerance may build-up, causing the behavior to become fixed and repetitive. An important shift has happened when a person is no longer looking to just get high. Rather, they are looking to stop the intense withdrawal symptoms.
Summing It All Up
Not all instances of substance use lead to addiction. The development of addiction depends on the interaction of a variety of factors, like a person’s genetics, the age they first started using, and psychological factors specific to their life history and personality. Environmental factors can also play a key role, such as:
- Cultural norms
- Stress exposure
- Financial resources
- Availability of drugs
- Social support
- Family and peer dynamics
If you are having concerns about a loved one, it may be best to follow your intuition and reach out for assistance despite not knowing for sure what is wrong. Treating addiction effectively requires comprehensive care that puts your loved one’s personal experience with substances and their mental health at the center of treatment. Trained clinicians can help you and your loved one determine the next step forward in stopping the cycle of addiction.
The cycle of addiction has three stages. Each stage is connected to activity in the brain that reinforces substance use. Stopping this cycle is critical to saving a loved one from the devastating effects of addiction and preventing further damage. Oceanfront Recovery is a residential facility located in Laguna Beach, CA. Our specialty is in providing primary care to individuals seeking detoxification and inpatient services. This first part of recovery can be extremely challenging, but if treatment is administered well, clients will develop a foundation that will facilitate success in the rest of their journey. In our residential program, a variety of evidence-based modalities are available. Moreover, our approach involves our clinicians learning about each client’s life history and preferences. It is important that our clients feel understood and empowered to make informed decisions about their treatment. Please call us today to learn how we can help someone you love at (877) 279-1777.