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Understanding the Stages of Addiction



Medically Reviewed by Dr. Mohammed Saeed, MD.

The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) defines addiction as “a treatable, chronic medical disease involving complex interactions among brain circuits, genetics, the environment, and an individual’s life experiences.” Whether an individual is addicted to drugs or alcohol, addiction should be thought of as a chronic disease — similar to diabetes or heart disease — that can be managed but that will not be cured. Like these other conditions, developing an addiction does not happen overnight. Instead, addiction is a process that occurs over a long period of time and is often aided by several different circumstances. Let’s explore more in this article.

The Four Stages of Addiction

While it is possible for an individual to develop an addiction accidentally, for instance when taking a habit-forming prescription, most addictions follow a well-established path from experimentation to regular use and abuse to dependency and tolerance to the final stage: addiction. Here, we’ll offer more detail on each stage of the addiction process.

1. Experimentation

Most people drink or take drugs for recreation, relaxation, stress relief, or help coping with emotional or physical pain. Whatever the reason that someone first takes a drug or has their first drink, they most likely never intended to become addicted. Unfortunately for some individuals, what was meant as one-time or casual substance use can open the door to a downward spiral of use and dependency that they are unable to control. This isn’t just the case for recreational drugs or drinking. For example, individuals may take prescription medications for pain but turn to illicit drugs to ease their pain when they no longer have access to their regular medications.

2. Regular use and abuse

The second stage in the addiction process occurs when an individual begins to make their drinking or drug use a habit. While their use may have started for recreation, relaxation, or self-medication, at this stage, their substance use is necessary to get through the day. The individual at this stage may even view life without using addictive substances as dull, less interesting, or less rewarding. In reality, substances can actually worsen feelings of anxiety or depression over time and make people less interested in activities they used to enjoy.

3. Dependency and tolerance

The brain starts to change with regular use of drugs and alcohol. Neurotransmitters in the brain become disrupted, either flooding the brain with heavy amounts of messenger chemicals (known as neurotransmitters) or experiencing disruption in the communication between neurons due to a lack of neurotransmitters. Over time, the brain will even stop releasing the neurotransmitters needed to regulate moods and other bodily functions and instead wait for the substance to regulate these actions instead. As an individual continues their use, the body develops a tolerance and demands larger amounts of the substance more frequently to obtain the same effects. An individual at this stage may even find they start to engage in risker behavior because of their increase in drug or alcohol use.

4. Addiction

The final stage is full-blown addiction; when the person no longer questions their increased use of a substance and is comfortable with the increased danger, risk and challenges they may have introduced into their life. Most of the person’s thoughts will be centered on how and when they can get high again. They may neglect basic hygiene, skip meals and lose sleep. Their relationships and work will suffer.

Risk Factors for Addiction

There is no way to determine who may develop an addiction. Both the person’s environment and genetics play a role in who is at greatest risk. However, we do know that the following factors can increase an individual’s likelihood of addiction:

  • A family history of addiction
  • An existing mental health disorder
  • The influence of peer pressure
  • A lack of family involvement
  • Early exposure and use of drugs or alcohol
  • Taking a highly addictive drug
  • Unstable life circumstances (poverty, abuse, etc.)

It’s common for an individual to go through multiple attempts to stop using drugs or alcohol before they recognize that they have an addiction. Once they have had their addiction officially diagnosed, the most successful path to recovery lies with professional detox and treatment that is backed by research. There are a variety of tools and treatments that can help someone break the cycle of addiction, from cognitive behavioral therapy to peer support groups, all with the goal of aiding the person in developing the necessary tools for managing the chronic condition that is addiction.

At Into Action Recovery Centers, we incorporate a people-centered approach to detox and addiction treatment to help people find new paths in their life. We’re conveniently located in Houston, Texas, and our program is led by experienced master’s level counselors and medical professionals who specialize in personalized treatment for drug and alcohol abuse.

Dr. Mohammed Saeed, MD.

Dr. Saeed is a psychiatry specialist with over 40 years of experience in the medical field. He received training in General Psychiatry at the University of Texas Medical Branch, where he was selected as the Medical Director of the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. He currently serves as the medical director at Into Action Recovery Centers. Full Bio

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