Part of the complete guide to understanding addiction
Table of Contents
For anyone going through addiction or who knows someone who is, the whole process can appear as one big blur. In reality, there is a gradual process leading to addiction, made up of seven distinct stages. Each step gets progressively more dangerous to a person’s well-being, and it becomes more complicated for the addict to quit. Understanding each stage and its associated behaviors is a valuable way to identify the challenges an addict might face and how easy it can be to get addicted.
The addiction process can be broken down into these seven stages:
- Regular usage
- Risky Usage
The starting point of addiction is the initial stage when the individual tries a substance for the first time. While this stage can happen at any point in one’s life, the National Insititute on Drug Abuse explains that “adolescents are particularly vulnerable because of the strong influence of peer pressure.” Adolescence is typically a time of experimentation and trying new things. As a result, young people are more likely to engage in “thrilling” or “daring” behavior and are less likely to consider the long-term consequences of their actions. In 2021, the percentage of people aged 12 or older with a substance use disorder was highest among young adults aged 18 to 25 .
A range of factors can affect how likely a person is to become addicted.
- Some of these factors are biological, such as one’s mental health. Conditions like depression and anxiety create a vulnerable emotional makeup that can make individuals more susceptible to developing an addiction.
- Other factors are environmental, which refers to the surrounding social environment the drug user inhabits. One’s family environment is a component – things such as an unstable family unit and a lack of parental supervision can put an individual more at risk.
- Drug availability and peer usage also come into play – those surrounded by others taking drugs will be more likely to do them themselves. As the National Institute on Drug Abuse explains, “the more risk factors an individual has, the greater the chance that taking drugs will lead to abuse and addiction.”
The fact that someone has tried a drug does not mean they are guaranteed to develop an addiction. Their drug usage could just be a phase of curiosity and experimentation that does not develop into a long-term habit. That being said, the earlier a person begins to use drugs, the more likely they are to progress into serious use.
Even though peer pressure can be a factor at play, the initial decision to take drugs is mostly voluntary, and there are no feelings of compulsion at this point.
At the experimentation stage, the user begins to move from seeing the drug in isolation to making the connection that it will create some sort of desired effect in their life. They will start to take it in different settings to see what positive impacts it can bring. Those suffering from a mental health problem, such as anxiety or depression, for example, may take the drug to see how it can alleviate their pain. Jawad Fatayer, in the Journal of Applied Social Science , explains that other common motivations for taking drugs are “thrill, peace, comfort, concentration, sexual performance, escape, confidence, coping mechanism, power, sense of belonging, the desire to be like everybody else, and many other positive cognitive and emotional energies.”
Carlo C. DiClemente  explains, “if the addictive behavior supplies a significant amount of positive reinforcement (excitement, social ease, and pleasure) and/or a significant amount of negative reinforcement (relief from boredom, frustration, and negative feelings), individuals tend to seek out and increase their engagement in the behavior.”
At this stage, the individual does not yet have a craving for the drug and is still able to make a decision as to whether to engage with it or not.
3. Regular Usage
In the third stage, the addictive behavior becomes more central to the user as their life narrows around it. As a result, they become progressively more dependent on the drug.
Their usage grows from sporadic to regular use. This does not mean that they use it daily, but rather their usage of drugs or alcohol becomes more predictable. They might, for example, take the drug every time they become triggered by a particular stimulus.
Here, the behavior becomes less self-contained and begins to spill into other areas. For example, relatives might start to notice alcohol breath smell on the individual, and they may start to show up to work hungover. They can still function somewhat normally as before, but tell-tale signs appear that their behavior is becoming problematic.
The individual in the third stage has not yet reached the level of addiction, but they are likely to think of their chosen substance more often and may have begun developing a mental reliance on it. The addict may also develop an element of cognitive dissonance where they know to some degree that their behavior is wrong and not what they want to do, but they feel the need to do it anyway.
4. Risky Usage
When people reach risky usage, the occasional adverse effects of stage 3, regular usage, become more frequent and severe. Whereas before, one might have had a periodic hangover at work or an event, this now happens on a frequent basis.
As the individual’s regular use has continued to grow, it frequently harms various areas of their life. Risky usage of drugs or alcohol refers to continual use despite negative health and social consequences.
One example of a negative social consequence concerns the cost of maintaining one’s addiction. As the addiction becomes increasingly more expensive, if a person doesn’t have the money to finance it, they may have to resort to borrowing or stealing money or other risky behaviors such as gambling. Such behavior makes the prospect of arrest more likely.
Driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol is another risky behavior that can occur at this stage. The National Institute on Drug Abuse explains that drugs can slow reaction time, impair the judgment of time and distance, decrease coordination, cause one to be aggressive and reckless when driving, cause drowsiness and dizziness, and impair cognitive functioning.
As the user becomes more and more focused on their addiction, It can also have an adverse effect on one’s family, job, and friendships. Friends, acquaintances, and relatives might notice that they become less of the person they once were. Other observable effects are losing interest in old hobbies and changing friendship groups, shifting their friendships to be friends with others who exhibit addictive behavior. The user can neglect responsibilities at home and work as well as have less of an ability to fulfill them adequately.
The dependence stage is when drugs become necessary for abusers to simply feel “normal.” Individuals at this stage feel that drugs or alcohol are essential to their everyday functioning and cannot imagine their life without them. Because the drug’s effect has impacted the user’s life gradually and over time, it can be hard for them to see from an objective perspective how far they have deteriorated and how different they are from the person they used to be.
Physical or psychological withdrawal symptoms will occur if drug or alcohol use is discontinued, including trembling, sweating, insomnia, depression, and many others. The individual may have already attempted and been unsuccessful at quitting due to experiencing these negative side effects.
The addiction stage is when the usage of the substance is not only not a choice for the user, but they now use the substance so routinely that they are not even conscious of it. The behavioral changes that occurred at stage 4 now become even more extreme, with the user displaying more erratic behavior. They may also become highly agitated and aggressive when questioned or if they feel that their lifestyle is being threatened in any way. The National Insititute on Drug Abuse explains, “Brain imaging studies from drug-addicted individuals show physical changes in areas of the brain that are critical to judgment, decision making, learning, and memory and behavior control.” At this stage, it becomes apparent to the outsider, if it wasn’t before, that addiction is a brain disorder. Roxanne Greitz Miller  writes that addictive behavior at this stage “becomes compulsive and truly uncontrollable, much like other behavioral expressions of brain disease. For example, Parkinson’s patients cannot control their trembling, nor can schizophrenics control their hallucinations.”
The individual’s addiction has grown far out of their control and now presents a serious danger to their well–being. Stage 7 is the make-it-or-break-it point. When one does not seek treatment and outside help for their addiction, the data shows that, sadly, they could have a fatal end. At this point, the addict is at the highest risk of suffering a fatal overdose.
Avenues Recovery: Treatment for All Stages of Addiction
If you or a loved one is in one of the stages of drug addiction, Avenues Recovery is here to equip you with the tools and skills you need to start your recovery journey. Avenues Recovery has a proven track record of helping addicts turn their life around 180 degrees and create a new lifestyle free from drugs and alcohol. Contact us today to find out more about our programs of recovery.