The Stages of Addiction

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People do not develop an addiction to alcohol and drugs overnight. It is the result of repeated substance abuse that changes how your body reacts to it. The stages of addiction typically progress the same for every person. However, the duration of each stage can be significantly different depending on the substance being abused and the severity of the addiction.

Since the process of addiction follows a pattern, it’s easy to break it down into stages from first use to addiction. There is debate on the number of stages, but seven is the most popular number.

The seven stages of addiction are as follows:

  1. Initiation
  2. Experimentation
  3. Regular usage
  4. Risky usage
  5. Dependence
  6. Addiction
  7. Crisis/Treatment

Understanding addiction and its stages and behaviors can help you identify someone heading toward addiction or who already has an addiction. The further into the stages a person gets, the harder it is to stop using.

What is Addiction?

Addiction is a chronic, relapsing disorder characterized by compulsive substance use despite the negative consequences. It is considered a brain disorder since it makes changes in the brain that involve reward, stress, and self-control. Many of these changes can last for years after a person stop using.

stages of addiction

What are the Most Addictive Substances?

When determining the level of addiction to different substances, it is typically broken down into psychological and physical dependency and the intensity of pleasure from these substances.

Many people start abusing drugs and alcohol because of their euphoric effects. The brain’s reward center changes with each use until it begins craving the substance. This is a sign of dependence and one step closer to addiction.

The 10 Most addictive substances in the U.S. are

  1. Heroin
  2. Crack Cocaine
  3. Tobacco
  4. Methadone
  5. Crystal Meth
  6. Barbiturates
  7. Alcohol
  8. Cocaine
  9. Amphetamines
  10. Benzodiazepines

What are the 7 Stages of Addiction?

Addiction begins with one decision to use any of the substances mentioned above. When addiction takes over, a person’s choice to use is taken away. The urge to use becomes compulsive, and people become irritable when they cannot get their drug of choice.

When you understand the different stages of addiction and how to identify them, you can intervene and help a loved one seek help.

different stages of addiction

Initiation is the First Stage of Addiction

Initiation is the first stage of addiction. During this stage, a person tries a substance for the first time. A person can use it for the first time at any age. However, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, most people try their first drug before the age of 18.

Teenagers try drugs and alcohol for a variety of reasons. Two common reasons are peer pressure and curiosity. Being popular or fitting in with a particular group can cause many teenagers to give in to peer pressure.

Another reason for the high rates of teenagers trying drugs and alcohol is the prefrontal cortex in their brain isn’t completely developed. This affects their decision-making skills. As a result, teenagers make decisions without considering the long-term consequences.

Just because a person tries drugs or alcohol doesn’t mean they will develop an addiction. Often, a person will try a substance out of curiosity, and once they are satisfied, they don’t use it again. People may also not continue using after their initial use for other factors, including

  • Drug availability
  • Peer usage
  • Family environment

If a person continues to use drugs or alcohol, they may quickly find themselves in the second stage of addiction.

The Second Stage of Addiction is Experimentation

addiction stagesWhen someone continues into the second stage of addiction, they begin experimenting with their drug of choice. This means they start using the drug in different contexts to see how it impacts them.

In this stage, the drug is typically connected to social situations, such as relaxing after a long day. Teenagers generally use it in party atmospheres or for managing school stress. Adults usually enter this stage of addiction for pleasure and to combat stress.

During the second stage of addiction, people typically experience little to no cravings. They will also be able to make a conscious choice of whether to use it or not. People may use their substance of choice in a controlled manner or impulsively, and the frequency of use depends on their reason for use and personal factors.

Regular Use is the Third Stage of Addiction

The more a person experiments with a substance, the more normal it becomes. Their use also transitions from occasional use to regular use. This doesn’t mean they use it every day, but there is a pattern to their use.

A pattern of use varies from one person to the next, but examples include the following:

  • Using every weekend
  • Using in high-stress moments
  • Using when bored or lonely

During this stage, a person may start using when they are alone and not just in social situations. Drug use can also begin to cause issues and have a negative effect on a person’s life, like going to work hungover or intoxicated after a night of drinking.

While addiction has not developed at this time, people think about their drug of choice more often and begin developing a mental reliance on it. It can be harder to quit using at this point, but if a person wants to, they could without seeking help.

Stage 4 is Risky Use

In the fourth stage of addiction, regular use continues to grow and regularly negatively impacts a person’s life. Although a periodic hangover at work is acceptable in stage three, in stage four, instances like that are a regular occurrence and become noticeable.

Many people whose drug of choice is alcohol are arrested for DUI in this stage of addiction. People who use all substances typically have noticeable performance issues at school and work. Risky use can also lead to financial problems when there aren’t any.

While users may not realize it, people on the outside notice a behavior change. Some changes that are common in a person using drugs and alcohol include:

  • Borrowing money
  • Neglecting responsibilities
  • Hiding drug or alcohol use
  • Change in friends
  • Visiting multiple doctors
  • Lack of interest in previously enjoyed activities
  • Stealing

Dependence is the 5th Stage of Addiction

The mark that someone is entering stage five is their substance use isn’t recreational or medicinal, but they are now reliant on their substance of choice. Sometimes this is viewed as a broad stage that includes tolerance and dependence. However, tolerance is built well before this stage of addiction.

This stage should be marked only by dependence. Dependence can be physical, psychological, or both.

For physical dependence, people have abused their drug of choice for so long that their body relies on it to function normally. If they stop or reduce their use, their body reacts by entering withdrawal. Withdrawal is characterized by uncomfortable and sometimes severe and life-threatening symptoms. Without professional help, most people relapse to escape the withdrawal symptoms.

With certain drugs like prescription medications, people often enter this stage of addiction through psychological dependence. People believe they need the drug to function normally. In this scenario, the drug is a coping mechanism during trying times and sometimes when it’s not necessary. For example, someone taking prescribed pain medication may over-medicate because they perceive moderate pain as severe.

Whatever the case, people take the drug because they know they need it to function through life. Once a person reaches this point, addiction is almost inevitable.

Stage 6 is Addiction

People often interchange the words addiction and dependency. In addition, substance use is no longer a choice. When a person is dependent, they still have a choice, albeit slim.

People struggling with addiction feel they can’t deal with life without their drug of choice. As a result, they lose all control over their choices and actions. The behavioral changes seen in stage 4 are now extreme with users:

  • Giving up hobbies
  • Avoiding friends and family
  • Compulsively lying about their drug use
  • Quickly agitated when their lifestyle is threatened

People struggling with addiction may also be out of touch with their old life; they do not see how substance use has negatively affected their lives.

Substance use disorder (SUD) is another term for addiction. This is a more accurate description because addiction is a chronic disease with lifetime risks. Even after a person completes treatment and is in recovery, there is always a risk of relapse. To maintain lifelong recovery, a person must completely change their lifestyle and continue with addiction therapy.

The 7th Stage of Addiction is Crisis/Treatment

The breaking point, or rock bottom, in a person’s life is the final stage of addiction. In this stage, their addiction is out of control and seriously threatens their well-being. This is often known as the crisis stage because a person is at the highest risk of fatal overdose or other catastrophic events.

Although a crisis is a worst-case scenario, this stage also has a positive alternative. Many people seek help from an addiction treatment center in Exton, PA, whether it’s their choice or because of a crisis. As a result, this stage of addiction marks the end of addiction and the beginning of a new life.

Treating Addiction at MPower Wellness

Do you identify with any of these seven stages of addiction? If so, the longer you wait to seek help, the harder it is to quit and the harder it is to repair the damage drugs do to your life.

At MPower Wellness, our individualized treatment plans are tailored to your personal and recovery needs. Overcoming an addiction isn’t easy, but it is possible. With the help and support you receive from our therapists, doctors, and others in recovery, you can build a new life free of drugs and alcohol. Contact us today to find out more.