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Stages of Addiction - How Does Addiction Develop?

Alcohol and drug addiction is a chronic disease that, like many other illnesses, does not appear suddenly at its most serious stage. As it develops, it increasingly impacts mental and physical well-being along with every other aspect of a person’s life. While there is no blueprint that accurately describes each and every person’s addiction experience, most people struggling with addiction follow a similar pattern of symptoms and behavior. Further, understanding the stages of addiction is helpful in seeking treatment early for oneself or someone they know.

Psychiatrists and social scientists have come up with many different models to describe this progression. They group symptoms into stages or cycles that most dealing with addiction experience at some point. Of course these are not perfect systems, but understanding them can help in identifying the signs of abuse and addiction and taking steps toward recovery.

Stages of Addictive Behavior

Most models divide the progress of addiction symptoms into 4-5 stages. These begin with Experimentation or Voluntary Use and move into Regular Use, Problem Use, Dependence, and Addiction. Some describe what chronic substance abuse does to the brain, while others (such as these stages) are more focused on the outward behaviors it can cause.

Stages of Addiction Infographic
  1. Experimentation
    Drug and alcohol addiction always begins with this seemingly-harmless phase. A person begins voluntarily using one or more drugs or drinking heavily. Generally, experimentation begins socially at a party or in some other group setting. At this point, use is irregular and only occurs in specific situations.

  2. Regular Use
    At this stage, drinking or drug use has made its way into a person’s everyday life. Typically there is often a specific problem that they use to cope with. For example, they suffer from physical pain, stress, depression, or social anxiety. They may still partake in social settings, but they now use the substance or substances alone as well.
    The line between regular use and problem use is a thin one. Regular, heavy use of drugs or alcohol begins to take a toll on the person’s life, health, and safety. As a result, they may embarrass themselves socially, experience relationship or marital stress, have trouble fulfilling work responsibilities, or drink/use and drive.

  3. Dependence
    By this phase, medically-defined addiction is beginning. Consequently, as a person relies on their drug(s) of choice more and more to solve outward problems, the brain adjusts to the chronic use, and withdrawal starts to occur. While the dopamine released by the drug caused a rush pleasure at first, now it becomes more difficult to experience pleasure without it.
    Dependent users see the substance as very important to them, and resist “cutting back” or making changes to their consumption habits even after negative side effects appear. Moreover, they may deny that they have a problem, push back against their family and friends’ attempts to help, or try to hide their substance abuse.

  4. Addiction
    With addiction, the brain is so severely dependent on a substance that the user is often powerless to stop without help.
    Some behaviors associated with drug and alcohol addiction include:

    • Uncontrollable cravings for one or more substances
    • A raised tolerance to the substance
    • Inability to stop or control the amount consumed
    • Extensive damage to physical health and well-being
    • Severe, painful withdrawals
    • Depression

Because of the intensity of withdrawal symptoms, addicts are often terrified by the thought of being without their drug of choice, and can become paranoid about running out and being without it. They will seek it compulsively, often from any possible source. This is where addiction can lead to serious danger and crime, because users feel that they need the substance(s) whatever the cost.

Addiction to one substance frequently leads to using and becoming dependent on others. Polysubstance Abuse occurs when someone abuses two or more drugs either together or in frequent rotation. Sometimes drugs are intentionally mixed for a specific effect, and sometimes the mixture happens accidentally. According to American Addiction Centers, frequently-combined drugs include cocaine with alcohol, opioids with benzodiazepines, and prescription medications with illegal drugs.

Recovery and Getting Help

Girl somberly staring at a lake

It’s important to understand that addiction doesn’t always progress in a linear way. Some people may immediately show signs of addictive behavior with drinking or drug use. For others, patterns of abuse might develop slowly over several months or years. The risks and behaviors in each phase also depend on the substance being abused. Even experimenting with some drugs can be much more dangerous and likely to lead to addiction than regular use of others.

However, knowing these stages can help people feel less alone in their struggle with substance abuse - which is one of the first steps toward seeking help and recovery. Addiction can be an extremely isolating experience, leading to depression and feelings of hopelessness. It is important to be able to identify the seriousness of a substance problem and how it develops.

If you or someone you know is struggling with substance abuse or addiction, get help now. Contact us and get more information on our programs here.

It is our mission to compassionately empower every client who walks through the door of Mountain View Recovery Center. Our vision is to provide support and structure in a community-based, clinical setting using evidence based practices. Our purpose is to break the stigma of addiction and show our clients a united way to lifelong recovery.