The Four Stages of Addiction – What are they?

Last Updated: April 29, 2024

Addiction Does Not Happen Overnight

Though it may sometimes appear as if someone with a substance abuse disorder develops a problem quickly, this isn’t usually the case. When it comes to addiction to alcohol and/or drugs, there are often stages that a person goes through as their dependency to the substance grows.

The following are the stages someone with a substance abuse disorder will likely go through.

Stage One: Experimentation

For some, experience with drugs and alcohol only goes as far as the experimentation phase. But for others, this phase is the beginning of a drug and/or alcohol dependency. This stage can occur at a different time in everyone’s life. For some, it may be at a young age.

According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, “Some teens will experiment and stop, or continue to use occasionally, without significant problems. Others will develop a dependency, moving on to more dangerous drugs and causing significant harm to themselves and possibly others. It is difficult to know which teens will experiment and stop and which will develop serious problems.” For others, the experimentation phase may not come until later in their life.

Though most people experiment with drugs or alcohol because they are curious, that is not always the case. Some may turn to drugs in order to relieve pain. When they find that pain relief, they may continue to return to drugs. Being given a prescription by a doctor is different than turning to drugs on your own, though both can lead to drug abuse and addiction.

What separates the stage of experimentation from other stages is that the drug and/or alcohol use is in a person’s control. They are able to stop using or stop drinking without being consumed by thoughts of the substance and without experiencing withdrawals.

Stage Two: Regular Or Social Use

In this stage, drugs and/or alcohol become a normal part of the user’s life. This may mean that they turn to the substance when feeling upset, or when in pain. Regardless of the reason, they have developed a pattern of use. The body and mind are not yet addicted to the substance, but regular use is leading to that road. During regular use, the mind is becoming used to rewards from drugs and/or alcohol, which may include pain and stress relief, relaxation, sleep, a high, and more. In this stage, the person using the substance still has control over their use and could likely stop if they felt as if they wanted to.

Stage Three: Problem And Risk-Taking Use

This is the stage in which drug and alcohol use really becomes an issue that lessens the user’s control. During the problem and risk-taking use stage, the user’s life becomes affected by their use. This could mean relationship problems, employment issues, financial struggles, and more. Risk-taking also becomes an issue at this stage, meaning that the user may drive under the influence, have unprotected sex, or make decisions that would not be made in a sober state of mind. In this stage, it becomes more difficult to stop using a drug or alcohol, as cravings are present when the drug or alcohol is not in the system.

Stage Four: Dependency And Addiction

This is the most advanced stage, in which drug and alcohol use becomes a dependency and an addiction. Dependency and addiction differ a bit. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “Physical dependence in and of itself does not constitute addiction, but it often accompanies addiction. This distinction can be difficult to discern, particularly with prescribed pain medications, for which the need for increasing dosages can represent tolerance or a worsening underlying problem, as opposed to the beginning of abuse or addiction.”

In this stage, it is typically impossible to stop using a drug or alcohol on your own. In fact, it can even be dangerous to stop use as it will shock the body. Medical detox, which often takes place at a recovery center, can help manage physical symptoms of withdrawal and make the detox process easier to handle.

Sudden drug cessation can cause hallucinations, seizures, and heart failure that may result in death. While this is rare, you never know how your body will react to detox until you’re going through it.”

Often if a person has progressed to this stage, they will need assistance with detoxification and recovery. But that does not mean they are a lost cause. By taking the right steps, recovery is possible and includes stages of its own.

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