What the Downward Spiral Looks Like

downward staircaseWhen describing the negative effects that addiction can have on a person’s life, people frequently use the phrase “downward spiral.” But what does this phrase mean, exactly?

In unraveling the meaning of the phrase downward spiral, it can be helpful to imagine addiction as a cycle, where the addict goes through the same series of stages over and over again. Going through the cycle over and over again can be described as a “spiral” because the addict is somewhere lower and lower each time when the cycle restarts. There are a myriad of ways you might delineate the stages of the addiction cycle, but to put it one way, you might have the following stages:

  • Feelings of isolation 
  • Acts of self-indulgence 
  • Feelings of shame/self-hate 
  • Acts of concealment 

Feelings of isolation

This stage includes a variety of feelings, including loneliness, alienation, rejection, abandonment, unworthiness, or low self-worth. These feelings might stem from a pre-existing mental disorder, a traumatic event, or from a knowledge of poor decision making (such as when you are entrenched in addiction). These distressing feelings might cause you to take on some compulsive behavior as a means to cope.

Acts of self-indulgence

In the context of drug or alcohol addiction, this is substance use. Substance use becomes the compulsive behavior that you engage in in order to escape from present problems. It is considered an act of self-indulgence because while it might offer feelings of pleasure or a brief escape at the moment, ultimately it harms you and those around you.

Feelings of shame

Engaging in acts of self-indulgence can lead to feelings of shame. The individual will experience an emotional letdown that is characterized by feelings of sadness, disappointment, guilt, shame, and self-hatred. The individual at this stage might ask questions like “How did I get here again?” or “Why did I do this when I said I would never do it again?” These feelings of shame lead the individual to acts of concealment.

Acts of concealment

A person who is experiencing shame as a result of substance use is likely to engage in acts of concealment, where he or she uses deception in order to give the illusion that no addiction exists. This might be concealment from others, or it might be a type of concealment from the self. Concealment can evolve into a kind of double identity, where there is the “substance using self” and the “non-substance using self.” Ultimately this concealment can lead to actions where you are isolating yourself from others. And once this happens, the person is right back to where he or she started—feelings of isolation.

This is one way to understand the downward spiral that addiction creates, and it can help you see what makes breaking addiction so complicated. If you or a loved one is experiencing addiction, contact us to get started on the path to recovery.