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Addiction Cycle SchematicDo you ever sit reading your phone, reach for that second cookie and then sit baffled and disappointed when you discover it’s gone? You don’t remember eating it! You were acting on automatic pilot. 

Something similar is true with any bad habit or addiction. Whether it is smoking, drinking, sex, drugs or any other, when we give in to compulsions, at some point we are on automatic pilot and in a kind of trance. It can seem like it “just happened,” or as is often said about a questionable romantic liaison, “one thing just led to another.” But on closer inspection, succumbing to a bad habit has a certain repetitive pattern, called the addiction cycle. 

When we understand how temptation and indulging the habit work, it becomes less mysterious. ​With this insight into the process, we can better figure out how the pattern plays out for us and how to interrupt it before we act upon our urges.

Feelings and Triggers

To start, the stage is set for the addiction cycle by having unwanted feelings: Anxiety, anger, sadness, shame, loneliness, emptiness, etc. Or just boredom.

We may not fully recognize that these feelings are even there, let alone know where they came from. Sometimes we act on our habit to head them off before they even fully arrive. For example, some people are constantly overworking and using other tactics to run from sadness because they find it so threatening to admit.

Next, after some unwanted feelings come up, we encounter “triggers” that make us think of our habit. These triggers are sights, sounds, smells or other sensations that lead to memories of good times and comfort through our habit. Another common definition of triggers is “people, places, and things” that prompt a craving for the activity or substance.

With alcohol, this could be hearing a certain song from drinking days in college. With opioid abuse, it could be just the sight of a certain neighborhood where she meets suppliers. Likewise, with eating problems, it could simply be catching a glimpse of ourselves in the mirror. 

After the unwanted feelings and then the triggers, a person may enter into the Addiction Cycle. You can draw a circle among three elements.

  1. Fantasy

First come fantasizing and preoccupation with the pleasurable thought of engaging in the habit. ​Memories of past indulgences can run like a video in the background as you do other things. These memories, of course, have all the discomfort and bad consequences carefully edited out.

  1. Rituals

Next comes the preparatory rituals. These are the things we set up to engage in the habit.

These rituals can be simple and brief, or elaborate and take quite a long time. They can unconscious, and elements can seem unimportant until you see they are all part of the picture of getting to the goal of indulging the addiction. 

There might be the arrangements for being alone, such as staying up late. There is the collection of necessary elements, sometimes half concealed even from ourselves. The alcoholic tells himself she is “just getting wine for my tomato sauce.” The pornography addict is “just checking email.”

Surprisingly, this preparation is a huge part of the desired effect. Think of the preparatory rituals you might go through with a harmless pleasure like enjoying a favorite meal. Maybe you look for a recipe online, and then shop for the ingredients. Or you look for a good restaurant. In either case, anticipation is half the pleasure.

  1. Acting out

This leads to the third stage, surrendering to the urge, what those in recovery call “acting out.” Sometimes this can be quick, as with smoking cocaine. Sometimes it can be a long drawn out process, as with porn users who spend hours looking for the perfect image. In any event, it ends with the moment of comfort and pleasure, or at least relief. 

  1. Numbing

After indulging, the addict tends to push down any mixed feelings, any misgivings about what they have done. Any inner conflict is resolved for now: “I got relief. It’s over. No need to think anymore about it.” 

  1. Discomfort

Gradually, though, uncomfortable feelings come. Maybe it is guilt and shame over our inability to stop the habit. Or disgust over the waste of time, or betrayal of our values. The hollow sense that what we just did was empty of meaning or real satisfaction.

At the very least, the stress or other  unwanted feelings we wanted to escape inevitably come back. And so we are set up to re-triggered back into the cycle again.

The only way we can stop such a habit is to get out of the cycle before we indulge. That means we can: Disrupt the Cycle

  1. Avoid triggers. That’s why we distance ourselves from friends who encourage our habit, and a host of other tactics.
  2. Notice the unwanted feelings at the outset and doing something constructive to move out of them. This is obviously the healthiest choice and can be learned. Similarly, we can also get support to heal any underlying emotional pain that might be driving these feelings. 

Or we can notice we are triggered and reach out for contact with someone helpful or do something else until the urge goes away. Again, a great and healthy choice.

3. Notice we are preoccupied and fantasizing, and nip that in the bud. As before, this is easier if we talk to someone. 

4. Finally, and this is late, we can admit we are getting into our rituals and decide to stop. We can put on the brakes especially if we connect to someone and get pulled out of our routine.

Realistically, the best way to break the cycle is to work with someone to learn about your own behavior and strategize how to disrupt the habits. And end the secrecy by having someone hold you accountable.

Getting support for your self-control helps you regain your self-respect and freedom from an unhealthy habit or addiction. 

Written by John R. Williams, MA LMHC, Mental Health Therapist for The Center • A Place of HOPE. John seeks to not only empower individuals to find peace and fulfillment, but also establish warm and strong relationships. Located on the Puget Sound in Edmonds, Washington, The Center creates individualized programs to treat behavioral and mental health issues, including eating disorders, addiction, depression, anxiety, and more.