For people who have never struggled with addiction, it can be hard to understand those who continuously choose a course of action which is causing serious problems in their lives.

Understanding addiction means more than understanding the science behind how and why a person becomes an addict, it also means understanding the cycle of addiction, and why it is so hard for people to let it go altogether.

What is most important to understand is that addiction is a real illness, in which the addict’s brain is influenced by a substance and manifests in three different ways:

? Craving the substance
? Loss of control over using the substance
? Continuing to abuse the substance even when serious consequences are taking place.

This happens because addiction affects and then makes changes to the brain, which make it difficult to rewire your thinking in order to break it. Here’s how addiction affects your brain.


Before it gets unpleasant, all addictions begin in the same way – with pleasure. The brain registers all types of pleasure in the same way, by releasing dopamine in the nucleus accumbens (a cluster of nerve cells beneath the cerebral cortex). This area of the brain is referred to by neuroscientists as the brain’s ‘pleasure centre’.

Almost all forms of pleasure are characterised by this release of dopamine, which in nature is designed to stimulate the hippocampus, the reward centre of the brain. This means that we become conditioned to associate the action with pleasure and reward, making it more likely that we will do it again.

Where things like sex or vigorous exercise create this feeling over time, the feeling needs to be worked for. Where drugs and alcohol are so addictive is because there is a more powerful, instant surge of dopamine, which tricks the brain into associating the use of this substance with positive feelings.

Learned behaviour

Once the brain has made the connection between a substance and pleasurable feelings, the reward centre of the brain begins to take over. Historically, the reward centre of the brain is important for sustaining life, meaning that we are hardwired to accept actions which relate to the positive feelings associated with pleasure and reward.

Over time, repeated use of an addictive substance causes a communication between the nucleus accumbens and the prefrontal cortex (which is involved with planning and performing tasks) to make the leap from liking something, to wanting it.


Another issue with the brain that helps pave the way for addiction, is that after a while it tends to adapt to the introduction of the substance, meaning that it becomes less pleasurable.

When it comes to natural rewards such as exercise or eating healthily, dopamine release is slower and more unreliable. Addictive substances flood neurotransmitters with anything up to 10 times more dopamine, in a way which is fast and reliable, meaning that those brain receptors quickly become overloaded. The brain responds to this by producing less dopamine over time, meaning that the addict needs to take far more of the substance in order to achieve the same feelings of pleasure.


Compulsion, or craving, is the natural conclusion of this process. The user remembers the pleasurable effects that they used to get from the substance and crave those sensations even though their body is no longer producing the chemicals needed to achieve that high. This is more than just wanting those feelings, the brain has been conditioned to ‘need’ that release that they achieve through substance abuse.

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 fairly easy to cure with detox and sobriety, it is the psychological addiction that takes a long time to break. Some people never quite recover from this part of their addiction and have to avoid triggers for the rest of their lives.

The cycle of addiction

Knowing the scientific explanation for addiction can help you to understand how an addict becomes addicted in the first place. But another thing to understand is why it might take someone a long time to recover, often suffering relapses long after rehabilitation has been completed.

Whether you are an addict yourself and worried about the stages you might have to go through before you can consider yourself ‘recovered’, or a worried friend or family member considering helping a loved one through recovery, the cycle of addiction is one which should be familiar to you.

The six stages of the cycle of addiction are:

1. Pre-contemplation. This is before the addict sees any problem with their substance use.
2. Contemplation. The point at which the addict starts to think about dealing with their addiction, even if they are still using.
3. Preparation. Having made the decision to change their substance use, the addict begins to prepare themselves to do so.
4. Action. Practical steps are taken. This may include rehab or going to Alcoholics Anonymous.
5. Maintenance. The addict has stopped using the substance, and now needs to stay in control so as not to return to it.
6. Lapse/relapse. A lapse is when the addict briefly returns to using the substance, but quickly returns to the maintenance phase. A relapse is when an addict goes back to their old behaviours completely and needs to start the cycle of addiction from the beginning again.

Ocean Recovery Centre offers a solution for addicts at any stage in the cycle of addiction. We are able to offer detox and rehabilitation services, which allow you to get clean and sober in a safe and professional environment. We can provide you with a dedicated aftercare programme to help prevent relapse, as well as to 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 01253 847 553, text HELP to 83222, or email

John Gillen - Author - Last updated: December 14, 2021

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.