Most anything that is ultimately self-sabotaging is cyclical. Abusive relationships follow a cycle which makes it difficult for victims to be rational, objective or emotionally and physically detach from their partner. Additionally, mental illnesses like depression also have a cyclical component. Addiction is no exception. However, what makes addiction far more complex is that it encompasses multiple aspects: physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual. Each of these aspects also functions on an endless feedback loop. Let’s go through each, one by one. For that reason, if an individual decides to stop drinking without medical assistance, the body’s newfound inability to balance itself without the use of alcohol leads to an overactive central nervous system. The latter can easily result in potentially fatal convulsions/seizures and other withdrawal symptoms. This is where the cycle begins. Once chemical dependency has set in, alcohol (or any other addictive substance) is necessary for the individual to feel normal and function without varying degrees of discomfort.
The physical component of the cycle is a given. As the body becomes more and more reliant on the substance for normal functioning, its tolerance levels rise. As this occurs, the body also depends on the specific substance for chemical balance. Take alcohol for instance. Alcohol is a depressant and it naturally depresses the body’s functioning, including the central nervous system. That is why an individual often feels relaxed when drinking the substance and may use it as a tool for coping with stress, anxiety and life, in general. Over an extended period of this level of alcohol abuse, the body begins to rely on alcohol for relaxation. Even sleep patterns become greatly affected, as the body begins to slow its own production of naturally occurring chemicals (serotonin) that help stabilize your moods and keep the body relaxed.
The emotional cycle is often easiest to explain via the use of the pain cycle. The introduction of pain (regardless of the nature or cause) leads to negative behaviors (in this case, the use of substances). Negative behaviors then lead to negative consequences that may be social, legal, etc. This then produces guilt and shame, which add to the pain. And so the cycle begins again. An example of an emotional or pain cycle caused by substances may play out as the following: A painful, stressful or otherwise extremely uncomfortable event occurs. Without positive, healthy coping skills in place, the individual seeks ways to avoid, escape, numb or self-medicate the emotions, cognitions or overall experience by turning to substances. The use of these substances leads to negative consequences within the personal and professional realm, ranging from relationship trouble to jail time. Regardless of the consequences, feelings of guilt and shame begin to surface (whether imposed or self-inflicted) which then leads to another painful, stressful or uncomfortable event. The only thing that these things do is lead to an even more painful and uncomfortable event, thus repeating and perpetuating the cycle.
The specific effects in each stage of the psychological cycle differ, depending on the type of substance used. However, the overall cyclical experience and outcome is the same. In general, the process looks a bit like this: A substance is introduced. Psychological needs such as a sense of belonging is met by building connections to a community, ceremonial acts (chopping and snorting cocaine, passing the bong, rolling joints, playing drinking games, etc.), specific roles and new identities and even nicknames, as well as feelings of relaxation, grandiosity and/or euphoria (depending on the substance) are developed. Once the substance is removed, the connections dwindle, ceremonial acts disappear and the individual experiences a loss of their acquired roles and identity. Additionally, the feelings of relaxation, grandiosity and/or euphoria are absent as well. The combination of these events leaves the individual feeling alone, disconnected and either moderately to severely depressed (depending on the duration of use) or in a state of panic and anxiety. It is typically, at this point, when the substance (regardless of the presence or absence of chemical dependency) is reintroduced in an effort to regain connections, identity, desirable feelings and a sense of control. The same pattern then arises and, of course, the cycle continues.
The spiritual cycle can play out a bit differently depending on the spiritual beliefs or lack thereof of the individual. Individuals are typically searching for something – a connection, themselves, a feeling, experience—when they begin using substances. Even if the experience is just "a good time," it is sought in an effort to fill a void. This could be a void of boredom, feeling controlled (by parents or relationships) or nothing better to do. In actuality, the void in all three possible instances is a spiritual one. That is why when people begin to use substances in an effort to solve a spiritual dilemma, the cycle begins, and addiction becomes inevitable. The spiritual cycle looks something like this: A void exists. Substances are introduced to fill the void. The desirable effects of the substances are temporary and the realization of the void reoccurs. Substances are introduced to fill it again. As with all the aforementioned cycles, the intensity of the cycle increases. In other words, the void becomes bigger as the negative effects of prolonged use of substances worsen. More of the substance is required to fill the growing void. When you do the math, it becomes quite clear why the disease of addiction is so complex and difficult to treat. Addiction is a multi-dimensional disease that requires more than just physical detox or counseling or a church retreat to fully treat. It requires physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual aspects of treatment for a successful, long-term recovery. If any key component is missing from your recovery today, be sure to seek the assistance you need and/or take steps to include it to prevent a cycle from beginning again and throwing you back into a spin. Assess your current journey and allow yourself the success and longevity you deserve.