For people who have never struggled with substance abuse, it can be hard to understand addiction and how it affects the people around you.

Understanding addiction means more than understanding the science behind how and why a person becomes an addict. Learning about the cycle of addiction and why it is so hard to stop using alcohol or drugs is key to properly understanding addiction and those around you.

What is most important to understand is that addiction is a disease. For people who suffer from drug or alcohol abuse, they will experience the below symptoms:

  • Severe cravings for drugs or alcohol
  • Loss of control over using the substance
  • Continuing to abuse the substance despite serious consequences

This happens because addiction affects the chemical processes in the brain and your body becomes tolerant to the substance, making the body dependent on the substance to function properly. Find out more about how addiction to drugs and alcohol affects the brain here.

Understanding the Disease of Addiction

You may have previously believed that addiction is a choice, but this is not the case. Drug and alcohol addiction causes chemical changes in the brain that make it extremely difficult to recover without support.

All addictions begin in the same way – with pleasure. The brain registers all types of pleasure in the same way through the release of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens (a cluster of nerve cells beneath the cerebral cortex). This area of the brain is known to be the pleasure centre.

Drugs and alcohol are addictive because of the powerful, instant surge of dopamine that is caused by drugs and alcohol use. These substances cause the brain to associate the use of this substance with positive feelings and this is how the cycle of addiction begins.

Addiction is a disease that requires specialist treatment to overcome. Strong cravings for drugs and alcohol are not only behavioural but physical and psychological too.


What is the Cycle of Addiction?

Understanding the cycle of addiction is crucial for both individuals struggling with addiction and those seeking to support them.

Whether you are an addict yourself and worried about the stages you might have to go through before you can consider yourself ‘recovered’, or you are a worried friend or family member considering helping a loved one through recovery, the cycle of addiction will be something you are aware of. But what is it?

The cycle of addiction is the non-stop routine of using a substance, becoming addicted, trying to quit, and relapsing which restarts the cycle after using the substance again. The key to ending the cycle of addiction is early intervention for successful recovery.

With the right support and resources, individuals can break free from the cycle of addiction and lead healthier, more fulfilling lives.


Factors That Make Addiction Hard to Overcome Alone

Recovering from addiction can be incredibly difficult, especially without professional support. It can be hard for loved ones to understand why drugs and alcohol are so addictive – see below what makes substance addiction so hard to stop.

Developed Tolerance

Increased tolerance is a significant factor that makes drug and alcohol addiction difficult to recover from. Tolerance is where the body adapts and adjusts to a substance which leads to reduced sensitivity to its effects. As a drug or alcohol tolerance develops, individuals need higher doses of the substance to achieve the same desired effects they once experienced with smaller amounts.

Often, alcoholics or people with drug addictions become dependent on the substance for the body to function ‘normally’ due to this tolerance. Withdrawal symptoms often occur when the substance isn’t consumed, which is another factor that causes the cycle of addiction.

Overcoming addiction when a high tolerance is present often requires specialised and comprehensive treatment, along with a strong commitment to recovery. Find out more about our addiction treatment programmes here.

Drug and Alcohol Cravings

Drug and alcohol cravings are commonly experienced by people with addiction and are caused by the body’s tolerance to the substance. A low mood and symptoms of depression are commonly experienced by users once they stop consumption as the chemicals in the brain no longer receive the same high.

Another issue with addiction is that the hippocampus and amygdala (the reward centre) store information about environmental cues as well, so an addict can be triggered by things which they associate with the substance. For a smoker, it might be the smell of cigarette smoke, or for a heroin addict, it might be the sight of a hypodermic needle.

Whilst the physical addiction to a substance is easy to cure with detox and sobriety, it is the psychological addiction that can be difficult to overcome. Some people struggle to fully recover from their psychological addiction and must avoid triggers for the rest of their lives.

Dual Diagnosis

Another factor that can cause a person to struggle with the cycle of addiction is if they are experiencing mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, OCD, PTSD or psychosis. Many people start using drugs or drinking alcohol to self-medicate and manage poor mental health, which can make the recovery process more challenging.

Some people feel that drugs or alcohol improves their mental health or manage symptoms, but it in fact worsens it.


How to Understand an Addict

Being patient and understanding with a loved one is key to understanding addiction and their behaviour. Addiction often causes family and relationship strains, as drug and alcohol abuse can change a person’s personality as well as their behaviour.

It may be in your best interest to distance yourself from a loved one, even if this is a difficult decision. A person can only achieve sobriety once they are ready to recover, so you need to allow them to reach this decision before suggesting recovery approaches.

However, by understanding addiction and why the behaviour or habits of a loved one may exist, you can understand a loved one better and manage your relationship in a healthy way.

Things you can do to show your support and understanding include:

  • Tell the addict that you are there for them
  • Distance yourself if necessary and explain why you need to set this boundary
  • Offer your support and encouragement for recovery
  • Recommend rehab centres or treatment options if they are ready to take this step


Seek Treatment for Addiction

Ocean Recovery Centre offers a solution for addicts at any stage in the cycle of addiction. We can offer detox and rehabilitation services, which allow you to get clean and sober in a safe and professional environment.

Find out more about some of the addictions we treat here:

We can also provide you with a dedicated aftercare programme to help prevent relapse, as well as provide you with the tools that you need to take care of yourself day to day when you are in recovery.

To find out more and get started on your recovery journey, just call 0800 880 7596 or fill out our contact form.

We can also provide advice and guidance if you are a loved one who needs help understanding addiction. Just get in touch with our team today.

John Gillen - Author - Last updated: February 15, 2024

John is one UK’s leading professionals in the addiction recovery industry. Pioneering new treatment techniques such as NAD+ and ongoing research into new therapy techniques such as systematic laser therapy, John is committed to providing the very best treatment for people throughout the UK and Europe. During his extremely busy schedule, John likes to regularly update our blog section with the latest news and trends in the industry to keep visitors to our site as well informed as possible on everything related to addiction treatment.