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Illustration of the human brain and all its synapse connections

To break the cycle of addiction, one or more components of the cycle must be stopped. The cycle can be broken at any stage, but ultimately the thoughts and views one has about his/her stressors and triggers must change. For, it is the thoughts and views one has about his/her stressors and triggers and a lack of alternative coping skills that create the perceived need to use substances. In recovery, it is best to avoid or minimize one’s array of stressors and triggers, when possible. However, with the normal ups-and-downs of life, it is impossible to avoid all stressors and triggers. Adding to this, internal triggers go wherever the drug addict or alcoholic goes because they are emotional triggers and cannot simply be removed. Below are methods to break the cycle at particular stages.


Living life with stable physical, mental and spiritual health.

This stage of the cycle can be continued by regularly doing self-checks, speaking with others, participating in ongoing recovery-related activities and therapy, managing one’s environment to reduce stressors and triggers, and avoiding negative influences.


Stressor – An event, person, place, process or any other thing that causes anxiety and tension. Some events are stressors for anyone who experiences them (disasters). Others are only stressors for certain individuals (behavior of others, performance pressure, views of others,

Trigger – Anything in the mind or environment that encourages one to return to a previous behavior. Internal triggers come from one’s thoughts and emotions. External triggers are related to the environment.

When possible, avoiding stressors or triggers is the best option. However, it will be impossible to avoid all stressor and triggers. When a stressor or trigger is encountered, it is important to immediately acknowledge it, accept it, speak to others about it. Having a list of readily usable positive coping skills for each common trigger is invaluable.

Thoughts/Views about Stressors/Triggers

One’s perception about the world they live in and the stressors and triggers around them. These thoughts and views can lead to the formation of feelings, either positive or negative.

This is THE critical stage in the development of long-term recovery. Without a change in the drug addict and alcoholic’s way of thinking, it will be difficult to elicit any meaningful change in the generation of the emotions and feelings that follow events. It is these feelings and emotions that can lead to use. Example: I get frustrated when I get stuck in traffic. Why? If I’m late I’ll look incompetent Change: I’m not usually late, so I’m not incompetent, but I may be late today. I can either leave earlier tomorrow, or maybe the traffic was because of the boat show, either way, I can’t do anything about it now. This is accepting life on life’s terms, an AA slogan.

Need to address stressors or triggers

Once a stressor or trigger induces perception-based emotions that lead to feelings, a person may sense that they must act upon the emotion. Either to heighten it or decrease it. When a person feels elated, they may want to increase their elation. When a person feels anxious, they probably want to decrease their anxiety. It is difficult for human beings to recognize and learn that not all feelings require a response. Sometimes, doing nothing is appropriate. Reaching this stage many times can be prevented by changing one’s thoughts/views on his/her stressors and triggers.

If one has progressed to this stage, it is best to use positive coping skills, rather than to relapse to a previous behavior or drug and alcohol use. Simple, readily usable positive coping skills are behaviors such as distraction, avoidance, calling someone, changing one’s environment, relaxation techniques, physical activity, reflection and redirection of negative thoughts, self-talk, remembering the consequences. Ultimately, the root cause of the stressor should be determined and dealt with, when the drug addict or alcoholic feels that they have the emotional strength to do so.


Cravings can lead to thoughts about using and thoughts about using can lead to cravings. Once a person reaches this stage, it’s not too late. Actions can still be taken that can prevent use. If one doesn’t have alternative coping skills and/or hasn’t changed his/her thoughts and views on stressors and triggers, it will be difficult not to progress to the next stage in the cycle.

Many of the coping skills listed for addressing stressors or triggers. Another commonly used coping skill for cravings is, “riding it out.” This is done by experiencing the craving and the feelings, both somatic and psychological, in a safe place and waiting for the craving to pass. Anti-craving medications can also be useful to combat persistent cravings that occur early in recovery.


Using a substance or behavior to decrease unwanted feelings or mask emotions or to increase wanted feelings and emotions. In early recovery, the desired effect may be to simply reduce cravings.

Once a person has progressed to this stage, it is important to limit the use and to safely stop using the substance. A slip does not have to turn into a full-blown relapse. At this stage, the person addicted to drugs or alcohol should seek help from their support network, self-help groups, counseling or inpatient or outpatient treatment.

Relief of Feelings

Achieving the desired effect on the regulation of feelings from using a substance or exhibiting a behavior.

Because the substance or behavior achieved the goal of reducing the unwanted feeling or increasing desirable feelings, the brain’s reward pathway has likely been activated, which can lead to more use. Now, it’s important to stop and think of other positive coping strategies that can achieve the same outcome.

More Use

Since relief has been accomplished by using, the person continues to use substances or behaviors to regulate his/her emotions/feelings.

At this stage, it is unlikely that severe consequences have been experienced. However, consequences to mental, physical, and spiritual health may begin to become apparent. Asking for help from others or a professional is probably the best course at this stage.

Out-of-Control Use

After a period of use of substances or behaviors for the regulation of feelings/emotions, the use becomes extreme. This may be due to physiological and/or psychological dependence.

At this stage of the cycle, it is paramount that professional assistance is sought and that the drug addict or alcoholic considers entering treatment to stop the progression of the disease. Consequences will begin to develop rapidly and it is extremely difficult and potentially dangerous to stop on one’s own.

Consequences, shame, guilt

The result of using produces unwanted social, mental, physical, and psychological consequences and oftentimes induces guilt and shame.

A quality treatment facility or counselor and the self-help groups can help one recover from the shame and guilt that is associated with using and the consequences of using. The social, legal, financial medical and mental health consequences that have been created by using will slowly dissipate as one moves forward in his/her recovery. Sometimes, all consequences are not able to be repaired. There may be lifelong consequences such as legal or medical problems, or the loss of significant relationships that cannot be changed. Acceptance is important at this stage. It is important to look at the consequences as indicators that one must stop using drugs and alcohol and seek help, without which one is likely to not want to stop using.

Stop Use

Cessation of substance use or a behavior due to consequences or potential consequences.

Depending on the length of out-of-control using, one may need to enter an inpatient drug and alcohol detox or rehab. At a minimum, some type of help should be sought. Depending on the duration of use, stopping the use of certain substances, such as alcohol and benzodiazepines is generally not safe when done without professional help. Cravings with the cessation of opiate use are oftentimes so strong that one is unable to stop use without professional assistance.


A state of being free of an unwanted substance or behavior.

Not to be confused with sobriety, abstinence is only the beginning of recovery. More importantly, sobriety must be obtained. Obtaining true physical, mental and spiritual sobriety will provide a foundation for lifelong recovery. A quality drug and alcohol treatment center will evaluate and treat all biopsychosocial aspects of the individual and provide a strong foundation for the beginning of sobriety.

No pre-determined time an any given stage of the cycle of addiction. It can be days, weeks, months or even years at any given stage.


Behavioral Wellness & Recovery is a Joint Commission accredited program. The Joint Commission recognizes excellence in health care organizations and programs.


Behavioral Wellness & Recovery is a Joint Commission accredited program. The Joint Commission recognizes excellence in health care organizations and programs.

Your decision to regain your life helps and heals your entire family. Do it for them. Do it for you.


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