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How the 3 Stages of the Addiction Cycle Change the Brain

A woman struggling to break free from the phases of alcohol and drug addiction.
The three phases of addiction help explain what substance abuse does to the brain and how it controls your behaviors.

“Addiction does not occur because of moral weakness, a lack of willpower or an unwillingness to stop.” – Jillian Hardee, Ph.D.

Behavioral health experts have turned to decades of work and research to argue that addiction is a disease of the brain. Of course, this can be a confusing statement for the average person who doesn’t study neurobiology. When you’re told that your addiction is a disease, what does that mean? How does addiction work and affect your body and mind?

When you pour yourself one drink after another or prepare a dose of cocaine, it’s probably hard to fathom why you can’t control your actions. If you feel like a slave to your cravings, it’s all due to the three phases of the addiction cycle.

The Three Stages of Addiction

In 2018, Dr. Nora Volkow, the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, published a review in The American Journal of Psychiatry that detailed the three phases of the addiction cycle and how this knowledge is relevant to future prevention and treatment.

In the abstract, Dr. Volkow and Maureen Boyle, Ph.D wrote that, “These advances in our understanding of brain development and of the role of genes and environment on brain structure and function have built a foundation on which to develop more effective tools to prevent and treat substance use disorder.”

Your addiction is not a result of a lack of willpower or strength; rather, it’s caused by uncontrollable changes in the brain.

Phase 1: Binge and Intoxification

Not everyone who drinks or uses drugs like prescription opioids suffers from an addiction. Substance abuse usually starts with specific genetic markers that put individuals at higher risk of drug or alcohol addiction.

While some people can drink or use a drug once and not fall into binging behavior, others who have specific addiction-triggering genes are hooked on the euphoric effects of a drug immediately.

During this stage, alcohol or the drug of choice stimulates a flood of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens and striatum – parts of the brain that make up what is known as the reward system. The pleasure experienced from this rush of dopamine reinforces the substance use behavior. Once this reinforcement sets in, the reward system of your brain expects continued use of the substance in order to feel the reward.

Phase 2: Withdrawal and Negative Affect

Once the brain is hooked on alcohol or drugs, it enters this second phase where an absence of the substance triggers a negative reaction. These effects can include sour moods, anxiety, dysphoria and increased stress. These withdrawal symptoms are triggered by parts of the brain known as the extended amygdala and the habenula.

Consider your panicked reaction when you can’t breathe under water or you’re dehydrated after a long day out in the sun. The brain enters a similar panic when it has gone an extended period of time without the substance it relies on to function. When the brain goes into withdrawal, increased signaling in the circuitry of the amygdala and the habenula lead to the preoccupation phase.

Phase 3: Preoccupation and Anticipation

At this point, the brain is preoccupied with seeking more alcohol or drugs. Cravings actually release some dopamine in the striatum, motivating you to consume more of your drug of use in order to relieve your withdrawal symptoms.

This need undermines the rational decision-making and emotion regulation in the pre-frontal cortex. When the pre-frontal cortex is hypofunctional like this and the stress reactivity in the limbic system is hyperactive, it’s extremely difficult to ignore motivations for the substance and stop abusing alcohol or drugs.

Once your brain receives the alcohol or drugs it has been craving again, you start these phases all over again. While you can’t break out of this vicious cycle on your own, addiction treatment centers that understand these phases of addiction can help.

Beat the Cycle of Addiction at The Raleigh House

At The Raleigh House, we have over 10 years of experience helping people like you break free from the three phases of the addiction cycle. We understand the neurobiology of substance abuse and use an “east to west” approach to treat addiction.

As a client at The Raleigh House, you’ll receive evidence-based treatments that are known to help people overcome substance use. You’ll also participate in experiential therapies like rock climbing and equine therapy to heal and strengthen your body, mind and spirit.

If you want to overcome your addiction once and for all, look no further than The Raleigh House. Contact our admissions team today to get started.

Call Now: 720-891-4657

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