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4 Stages of the Addiction Cycle

People become addicted to many things, including alcohol, drugs, relationships, various foods (including chocolate), the Internet, porn and other sexual addictions, coffee, shopping, work, gambling, TV – even just the need to be right and in control.

While a few of the above may be enjoyed in moderation, an addiction develops when we know the behaviour is harmful to our health and/or relationships, but we can’t stop ourselves. Instead of being able to show self-control, the thing we are addicted to controls us.

This week we will look at the four main stages in the cycle of addictions:

1. Temptation

The first stage in addictions comes when we are faced with temptation. That is, something we know will give us satisfaction, albeit temporarily and/or for a price, is available to us.

We usually give into temptation when we are tired, lonely, stressed, bored, anxious, want to take our minds off things, or are feeling empty/burnt out. In other words, we are physically and emotionally vulnerable to it. It usually starts with thoughts – a fixation on the thing we are addicted to. Addicts may wrestle with themselves about it, not wanting to give in, but most will be to justify to themselves why they deserve it. They convince themselves that it’s okay if they do it one more time, or that it won’t matter if they only do it in small portions (e.g. only eat one biscuit, only have one drink etc). But no one sets out to be an addict – it always starts with that ‘one time’.

2. Self-Confidence

Once faced with temptation, addicts will usually assure themselves they can handle it. That is, they believe they can have a small portion without getting out of control: they can be alone in the house with the computer and not log on, they can bring home work without letting it take over their whole evening, and so on.

It is through this unhealthy self-confidence that addicts set themselves up to fail, as they assume they have more power than the addiction. While this hopefully will be the case one day, often an addict has to admit (as alcoholics do in AA), that there is a problem, and that as such they cannot even risk small temptations (i.e. that one drink, that five dollars on the pokies, that one drug dose). As soon as that ‘one’ takes place, the addict remembers why it feels so good and/or exciting, and soon need to take another. Admitting that the self cannot always be trusted even with small risks is often the first step in conquering an addiction.

3. Giving In

After being faced with temptation(s) and assuring themselves they can handle it, the addict then ultimately gives in to the temptation – they eat the food, they gamble the money, they engage with sexually impure material. This stage of the cycle is when the addict acts against their better judgment and sometimes even against their will. 

4. New Resolutions

Having fallen once again to temptation, the addict will then usually be overwhelmed with guilt, shame and self-condemnation. This can often be unbearable and may also be met with a physical down (e.g. the hangover after getting drunk, the low after a drug-induced high etc). Because the addict knows they have again failed to break the cycle, they often become incredibly self-critical at this stage. This then leads to new resolutions – they promise themselves and/or others that it will ‘never happen again’, that they will start afresh the next day, and conquer it once and for all. They may indeed be successful for a while, but the resolutions are often unrealistic and a superficial way to deal with the underlying problem. As such, it places a lot of pressure on the addict, making them vulnerable to temptation, and so the cycle starts again.

If you have an addiction of any sort, you may recognise this cycle in your life. You may have seen it occur again and again, with more broken promises and guilt usual for any one person. Even if the addiction is relatively harmless, if there is something in your life you do not have control over and/or that is harming your health/relationships, then it is important to get professional help and/or to talk to someone you trust about it.

Next week, we will look at some other tips that can help conquer addictions, including understanding the need behind them.