The 4 Stages of Drug & Alcohol Addiction

Photo of a woman taking a selfie at a dance club.Shape

Understanding the stages of addiction can help you identify it before substance use becomes addiction. Learn how to recognize addiction in our blog!

Drug addiction is not an event that happens overnight.

People do not just wake up one day addicted to drugs like heroin, meth, or cocaine. Instead, addictions develop over time in different stages.

Understanding the different stages of addiction can help individuals intervene in a loved one’s life before a small problem turns into a life-altering condition.

Stage 1: Experimentation

In the experimentation stage, the user is trying drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism or recreational activity. People may experiment with substances for a variety of reasons. For example, someone may use substances to feel better, get out of pain, blend into social situations in which drugs and alcohol are being used, or experience something novel and interesting.

At this stage, people may use illegal or legal substances. Some people who experiment with less addictive substances may find themselves experimenting with harder, more dangerous substances. Others, however, will only use their original substance. No matter how many substances are involved, prolonged experimentation with any substance that has the potential to be abused puts people at risk of developing a dependency.

Stage 2: Regular Use

Regular use does not mean that someone has developed a complete addiction. Some people can regularly drink or use certain substances without being addicted yet. Although, that does not mean they are safe from adverse health outcomes from substance use.

Moreover, regular use significantly increases the risk of becoming addicted, as regular use will start altering brain functions and making the body dependent on a substance for mood regulation and other necessary functions.

This stage is particularly insidious because many people who reach this point feel immune to addiction. Some may have been taught that one experience with drugs or alcohol will lead to addiction. Since their experience disproves this, they may feel they are safe. Many people at this stage believe they can step away from drugs and alcohol at any time, and that may be the case for now. Although, as the use continues, the risk of addiction continues to rise.

People in this stage of addiction are usually using frequently enough that loved ones begin to be concerned with their behavior. When questioned about their substance use, they will make excuses or justify their behavior, even though they may feel shame and guilt over their substance use.

Stage 3: High-Risk Use

At this stage of addiction, physical and mental reliance on drugs and alcohol becomes apparent. What once was occasional use is now as much of someone’s routine as brushing their teeth or eating breakfast.

During this stage, an individual starts using greater quantities of their substance of choice, and they use it more often. The use increases because they need more drugs or alcohol to feel the effects they originally felt from using. 

With this increased usage, withdrawal symptoms may start to become apparent in the time frames when the individual is sober. When not using, they may seem agitated or complain about not feeling well. This stage is usually marked by greater risk-taking, which sometimes leads to devastating consequences.

High-risk use is usually when financial, relationship, and legal troubles start plaguing people in the addiction cycle. Money that may be needed for necessary expenses is now going to purchase the person’s substance of choice. They may be ditching plans with close friends or family members for the opportunity to get high. They will usually deny or make excuses for these changes.

For example, even after receiving a DUI or another drug-related charge, many people struggle to see how big of a problem their substance use has become.

Stage 4: Addiction

When someone has reached stage four, they are fully addicted. Drugs or alcohol are controlling their life. Withdrawal symptoms are no longer negligible and cannot be written off as feeling sick. 

Without their substance of choice, addicted individuals can experience a variety of severe symptoms from:

  • Sweats

  • Shakes

  • Vomiting

  • Seizures

  • Extreme pain

  • Hallucinations

Addiction is not about wanting to do drugs; it is about needing to do drugs to have any resemblance of functionality during the day.

Any addiction is a serious condition that needs to be treated immediately. The longer someone avoids treatment, the stronger the addiction becomes, and the greater the toll it takes on the body and mind.

Through the behavioral, psychological, and mental changes an addicted person experiences, they may find themselves turning into someone their loved ones do not recognize. 

As an individual moves through their day while under the influence of addiction, they will find increasing aspects of their day-to-day life are impacted. They may drop out of school, lose their job, participate in criminal behavior, or neglect basic self-care such as sleeping, eating or exercising.

When Should Someone Get Help?

Fortunately, help is available for those struggling. Although there are different treatment programs for different levels of a substance use disorder, it is best to seek treatment as soon as the addicted individual is willing to engage with it.

The worse an addiction becomes, the more challenging recovery can be. No matter how far the substance abuse has progressed, recovery is possible.

Stop Addiction Today at The Forge Recovery Center

No matter what stage of the addiction cycle your loved one is in, there are tools and resources available to get them help. At The Forge Recovery Center, we have years of experience treating individuals in different stages of the addiction cycle, but we know firsthand how important it is to get help sooner rather than later.

Once someone has developed a full-blown addiction, it will be a chronic illness they may need to battle for the rest of their lives as their brains have been rewired for dependency on a substance.

Even someone who is not addicted may experience serious medical, legal, financial, and relational issues from substance use.

If you believe your loved one is abusing substances and may be putting themself in danger, do not waste time getting help. To learn more information regarding treatment options, contact The Forge Recovery Center today.

Are You Struggling with Mental Health or Addiction?

We Can Help. Call Us Now!

CALL: 877-839-1772

Written by

brian-mooreBrian Moore

Content Writer

Reviewed by

jeremy-arztJeremy Arzt

Chief Clinical Officer

August 17, 2022