The 7 Stages of Addiction
An addiction does not form spontaneously overnight. Instead, it is the result of a long process of repeated substance abuse that gradually changes how an individual sees a drug and how their body reacts to it. This process is linear and has the same progression for every person, although the duration of each step in that progression can differ greatly depending on the individual, dosage and type of drug being abused.
Since this process follows a pattern, it is possible to break it down into the stages of an addiction, starting from a person’s first use and leading all the way to addiction itself. While there is some debate over how many stages there are for addiction, seven is one of the most popular numbers for mapping out the process.
These seven stages are:
- Regular Usage
- Risky Usage
Understanding each stage and the behaviors associated with each is a valuable way to identify when someone is at risk for an addiction or has already developed one. As each stage progresses so do the dangers associated with the drug’s use, as the ability to quit using becomes much more difficult.
Stage 1: Initiation
The first stage of addiction is called initiation, during which time the individual tries a substance for the first time. This can happen at almost any time in a person’s life, but according to National Institute on Drug Abuse, the majority of people with an addiction tried their drug of choice before 18 and had a substance use disorder by 20.
The reasons a teenager experiments with drugs can vary widely, but two common reasons are because of either curiosity or peer pressure. This latter choice is made with intent of trying to fit in better with that particular group of peers. Another reason that teenagers are more likely to try a new drug than most age groups is due to how the prefrontal cortex in their brain is not yet completely developed. This affects their decision-making process, and as a result many teenagers make their choice without effectively considering the long-term consequences of their actions.
Just because someone has tried a drug, it does not mean that they are certain to develop an addiction. In many cases, the individual takes a drug out of curiosity, and then once that curiosity has been satisfied, stops use. This decision can also be impacted by other factors related to the drug’s role in the individual’s life, such as:
- Drug availability
- Peer usage
- Family environment and drug history
- Mental health (conditions like depression and anxiety often encourage use)
If circumstances align and the individual continues to take the drug, they may soon find themselves in the second stage of addiction.
Stage 2: Experimentation
At the experimentation stage, the user has moved past simply trying the drug on its own and is now taking the drug in different contexts to see how it impacts their life. Generally, in this stage, the drug is connected to social actions, such as experiencing pleasure or relaxing after a long day. For teenagers, it is used to enhance party atmospheres or manage stress from schoolwork. Adults mainly enter experimentation either for pleasure or to combat stress.
During Stage 2, there are little to no cravings for the drug and the individual will still be making a conscious choice of whether to use or not. They may use it impulsively or in a controlled manner, and the frequency of both options mainly depends on a person’s nature and reason for using the drug. There is no dependency at this point, and the individual can still quit the drug easily if they decide to.
Stage 3: Regular Use
As a person continues to experiment with a substance, its use becomes normalized and grows from periodic to regular use. This does not mean that they use it every day, but rather that there is some sort of pattern associated with it. The pattern varies based on the person, but a few instances could be that they are taking it every weekend or during periods of emotional unrest like loneliness, boredom or stress. At this point, social users may begin taking their chosen drug alone, in turn taking the social element out of their decision.
The drug’s use can also become problematic at this point and have a negative impact on the person’s life. For example, the individual might begin showing up to work hungover or high after a night of drinking alcohol or smoking marijuana. There is still no addiction at this point, but the individual is likely to think of their chosen substance more often and may have begun developing a mental reliance on it. When this happens, quitting becomes harder, but still a manageable goal without outside help.
Stage 4: Risky Use
With Stage 4, the individual’s regular use has continued to grow and is now frequently having a negative impact on their life. While a periodic hangover at work or an event is acceptable for Stage 3, at Stage 4 instances like that become a regular occurrence and its effects become noticeable. Many drinkers are arrested for a DUI at this point, and all users will likely see their work or school performance suffer notably. The frequent use may also lead to financial difficulties where there were none before.
Although the user may not personally realize it, people on the outside will almost certainly notice a shift in their behavior at this point. Some of the common changes to watch out for in a drug user include:
- Borrowing or stealing money
- Neglecting responsibilities such as work or family
- Attempting to hide their drug use
- Hiding drugs in easily accessible places (like mint tins)
- Changing peer groups
- Visiting multiple doctors or rapidly changing doctors (if using a prescription drug)
- Losing interest in old hobbies
Stage 5: Dependence
The mark of entering Stage 5 is that a person’s drug use is no longer recreational or medical, but rather is due to becoming reliant on the substance of choice. This is sometimes viewed as a broad stage that includes forming a tolerance and dependence, but by now, the individual should already have developed a tolerance. As a result, this stage should only be marked by a dependence, which can be physical, psychological, or both.
For a physical dependence, the individual has abused their chosen drug long enough that their body has adapted to its presence and learned to rely on it. If use abruptly stops, the body will react by entering withdrawal. This is characterized by a negative rebound filled with uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous symptoms, that should be managed by medical professionals. In most cases, individuals choose to continue their use, rather than seeking help, because it is the easiest and quickest way to escape withdrawal.
With some drugs, especially prescription medications, the individual may enter this stage through psychological dependence before a physical one can form. When this happens, the individual believes that they need the drug to be able to function like a normal person. Here, the drug commonly becomes a coping mechanism for trying times, and then extends to instances where it should not actually be necessary. For example, a patient taking pain medication may begin to over-medicate, as they perceive moderate pain as severe pain.
In either case, the individual takes the drug because they have come to an understanding that they need it in some way to continue through life. Once this mindset takes hold, addiction is nearly certain.
Stage 6: Addiction
Dependency and addiction are words that are sometimes used interchangeably, and though the words are similar and frequently connected in drug use, they are different. One of the biggest differences is that when a person develops an addiction, their drug use is no longer a conscious choice. Up until that point, it remains at least a shadow of one.
Individuals at this stage feel as though they can no longer deal with life without access to their chosen drug, and as a result, lose complete control of their choices and actions. The behavioral shifts that began during Stage 4 will grow to extremes, with the user likely giving up their old hobbies and actively avoiding friends and family. They may compulsively lie about their drug use when questioned and are quickly agitated if their lifestyle is threatened in any way. Users, at this point, can also be so out of touch with their old life that they do not recognize how their behaviors are detrimental and the effects that it has had on their relationships.
Another term for addiction is a substance use disorder, which is an accurate description because it is a chronic disease that will present risks for a lifetime. Even after a person quits using a drug and has undergone treatment, there will always be the danger of relapse. This means, one must commit to an entire lifestyle change, in order to maintain their life of recovery.
Stage 7: Crisis/Treatment
The final stage of addiction is the breaking point in a person’s life. Once here, the individual’s addiction has grown far out of their control and now presents a serious danger to their well–being. It is sometimes referred to as the crisis stage, because at this point the addict is at the highest risk of suffering a fatal overdose or another dramatic life event.
Of course, while crisis is the worst-case scenario for this stage, there is also a positive alternative that fits here instead. Either on their own or as a result of a crisis, this is when many individuals first find help from a rehab center to begin receiving treatment. As a result, this stage can mark the end of their addiction, as well as the start of new life without drugs and alcohol, that is filled with hope for the future.
Treatment for Substance Abuse
Have you been able to identify with any of the seven stages discussed today? If so, it may be time to reach out for professional help from an addiction treatment center.
At Brookdale Addiction Recovery, we can provide you with the individualized care you deserve, through our patient-centric approach to treatment. As each patient enters our program, they undergo a thorough evaluation by our medical and clinical team to construct comprehensive treatment plans tailored to fit their needs.
Overcoming a substance use disorder is no easy feat, but it is not impossible. With the proper help and support, you or your loved one can be well on your way to a new, vibrant life…recovered.
Please call our trusted Admissions Specialists today at (855) 575-1292 to find out more about our program and the admissions process.