How to Recognize the Stages of Addiction

Your Life May Depend on It

One in 10 Americans, or approximately 23.5 million people over the age of 12 have an addiction to drugs, alcohol or both, according to government statistics. With that many people as active substance abusers, you may think it’s easy to spot the stages of addiction. After all, it’s likely you or someone you know and love may be in one of those stages now.

Addiction statistics

Addiction usually doesn’t happen overnight, however. There are some people, according to the stories shared at 12 Step meetings across the country, who do experience strong cravings almost immediately after their first drink or use of a drug. They’re the exception, though, rather than the norm.

Instead, most people slide gradually into addiction, sometimes staying in one or more phases of the four-phase cycle for a long time until finally they can’t ascend that slippery slope anymore. It’s like they’ve slid into the bottom of a very deep well, and when that happens, they need the help of a recovery center to pull them out.

For anyone wondering if they have a drug or alcohol problem, understanding the phases of addiction can help you face your own habits with honesty and courage. It’s also helpful to understand the stages of the addiction cycle so you can put the brakes on any habits that may be setting you up for a much bigger problem than the occasional hangover.

Not everyone agrees on the exact number of addiction stages, but if you’re wondering what the stages of addiction are, the following outline of the stages and the corresponding symptoms will help you understand the general flow from use to abuse.

If you recognize yourself, or someone you love, in this description, make sure you contact 12 Keys to learn more about our recovery services. You can break the addiction cycle at any stage, and the sooner you stop, the better off you’ll be.

The Four Stages of the Addiction Cycle

There are four stages of the addiction cycle:

  1. Experimentation
  2. Regular Use
  3. Risky Use/Abuse
  4. Addiction and Dependency

Stages of addiction cycle

Some experts split the phases of addiction into more steps, but the four outlined above represent the general stages of drug addiction as well as the stages of alcohol addiction.

Even before people enter Stage 1 – Experimentation, they may be preconditioned to try drugs based on their family history, friends, neighbors and other images, such as television, movies and music. The more kids are exposed to messages about the pleasures of drug use, the more they say they feel pressured into trying drugs or alcohol.

Family also plays a crucial role in whether or not people experiment with drugs and alcohol. In families where parents are more relaxed about drug and alcohol use, children and teens are more likely to dabble and experiment with it.

Kids drug exposure

The opposite is also true, according to CNN’s Schools of Thought. Families with a strong religious tradition or no-drug tolerance policies provide a stable, supportive background which keeps kids from experimenting with drugs and alcohol.

Even if young people pass through their teenage years without trying drugs or alcohol, they may experiment while in college, or as young adults. Whether it’s smoking, drinking, taking drugs or other addictive behaviors, the stages of addiction are the same at any age, and no one is immune from becoming addicted.

Stage 1: Experimentation

One of the trickiest aspects of addiction is that often the first samples of drugs or alcohol produce few or no negative consequences. During Stage 1: Experimentation, people often try drugs and like the feeling they produce. People may sample alcohol, or drink socially at parties or events.

During the Experimentation phase, there aren’t any negative consequences. If someone likes the feeling that drugs or alcohol produce, they may want more.

For someone with an underlying mental health issue, especially, the Experimentation phase can be very dangerous. Many people turn to drugs or alcohol during times of problems, stress or other issues. The substances help them through a difficult period, so they try more. For people with mental illnesses like depression, it can actually make things worse, which makes them reach for more substances to numb their feelings. Eventually, this can tip someone into Stage 2: Regular User.

drug use caused by stress

Stage 2: Regular User

Stage 2: Regular User is where people may notice they’re starting to have problems with drugs or alcohol. The occasional drink or drug turns into a regular event, like eating, sleeping or brushing your teeth. Drugs or alcohol have become just part of the routine.

At this stage, some people can voluntarily stop using substances on their own. They can step away and take long breaks from using a substance without feeling too many cravings or ill effects.

Because they can step away from use, many people are fooled into a false sense of security. They think that if they can stop using drugs or alcohol now, it’s always going to be this easy to quit. For some, that might be true — but for others, it’s not.

As the Regular User stage starts to turn more toward addiction, people may find themselves using so frequently that their behavior raises troubling questions with others. They may start engaging in risky behaviors like driving under the influence or going to work high. If they don’t get caught, this further reinforces the false notion that they can continue using substances safely.

Stage 3: Risky Use and Abuse

At Stage 3: Risky Use and Abuse, the routine use of drugs or alcohol escalates. Now it’s much harder to stop using than it was before. Cravings may be very strong, and they may drive you to do things you wouldn’t normally do so you can get your hands on more drugs or alcohol.

Stage three of drug abuse

Throughout the stages of addiction, substance abusers increasingly use more drugs or alcohol as their tolerance increases. During the Risky Use and Abuse phase, some people combine drugs, take them more frequently or change how they take them so their highs are stronger. They may add new drugs to their regimen to mitigate the effects of other substances, like taking tranquilizers to fall asleep after a cocaine binge.

You may also find that you’re using not just once a day anymore, but rather many times during the day just to get through your normal routine. Getting more drugs, planning your high, finding the money to pay for them and obsessing over your drug or drinking life takes priority over everything else — and it’s as though life is on hold until you can get high again.

Risky use can also include using drugs when you know you shouldn’t because it puts your life or someone else’s life in danger. Driving under the influence, operating machinery while high or driving your kids to school while you’re drunk are all signs that regular use has turned into abuse.

Other people may begin to notice or comment on your behavior in Stage 3. This is usually the stage in which the people you’re closest to begin to notice your behavior. This stage is also when the symptoms of addiction, including withdrawal symptoms, can become noticeable.

Additionally, it’s at this stage that it’s very hard to break free from drugs and alcohol on your own. By the time you’ve reached Stage 3, your body may have become physically dependent on the substance you’re abusing. It may be difficult or even dangerous to stop on your own. It’s very important to contact your healthcare provider or a rehab like 12 Keys if you think you’ve reached the risky use and abuse stage.

Stage 4: Addiction and Dependency

Stage 4: Addiction and Dependency is where the slide from experimentation on down tips you right into that deep pit called Addiction. In the Addiction and Dependency phase, it’s no longer a question about whether or not you’re dependent on drugs or alcohol. If you don’t get them, your body lets you know.

drug addiction and dependency

Shakes, tremors, frantic behavior, sweats — all the symptoms people talk about around drug withdrawal can show up if your next hit is delayed. You spend most of your time high, and you don’t want anything to get in the way of it.

Your body has become physically dependent on the substance you’re abusing. If you stop abruptly, within a few hours you feel intense cravings. Those cravings can turn into a panicky feeling if you can’t get more drugs or alcohol. It may seem like you’ll do anything for your next fix.

This is also the stage in which if someone tells you that your life depends on stopping your behavior, you can’t. Through the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, there are stories of people who were told they absolutely had to stop drinking or they’d be dead soon. Most of those people couldn’t stop on their own. It took other members of AA to help them see a new way of life: recovery.

How Your Body Adapts During the Stages of the Addiction Cycle

Some people who are unfamiliar with addiction wonder why addicts just can’t stop when they want to. After all, you can stop most unwanted behaviors. What’s different with addiction?

Your body goes through many changes during each phase of addiction. The human body is a miraculous creation. It works hard to maintain homeostasis, or balance. When something within its chemistry goes out of balance, it works overtime to compensate. When you start using drugs or alcohol, your body counteracts them to make sure important organs like your brain aren’t damaged.

body changes during addiction

For instance, the brain compensates to the introduction of drugs or alcohol by changing how many circulating neurotransmitters are available. It shuts down or opens up neurons to receive chemicals and altering the balance among the chemicals.

The liver also becomes more proficient at metabolizing the chemicals from substance abuse. Over time, however, it becomes less proficient and starts to break down under the strain of repeated overwork. Scars, called cirrhosis of the liver, may develop, which can seriously impair the liver’s functions and eventually cause death.

The adaptations help the body compensate in the short run, but as regular use turns into risky use, greater quantities of the same substances are needed to give users the same feeling. This is called tolerance.

As your tolerance to drugs or alcohol increases, you need more to get high again. As you continue to take increasing quantities of drugs, neither the liver nor the brain can keep up with neutralizing the substances. You can no longer function without the substances. Dependency is complete.

The Stages of Alcohol Addiction and Its Effects on the Body

Alcohol is one of the most dangerous drugs you can become addicted to, and it has many effects on the body throughout the stages of alcohol addiction.

Danger of alcohol addiction

During the initial experimentation phase, some people are surprised to find that they have a very high tolerance for alcohol. It seems like they can drink, feel happy and buzzed — and they don’t suffer any ill effects.

You may think this is a great thing, but it can lull you into a false sense of security. Most dangerous things warn you that they are dangerous. Rattle snakes shake their rattles. Black widow spiders have a big red hourglass on their back to warn you away. Poison tastes bad.

Alcohol, however, tastes good, and it doesn’t warn you that it can be addictive. As the experimentation phase transitions into regular use and abuse, you may not notice the same signs of alcoholism as others because your body is different from that of normal drinkers.

An alcoholic’s body adapts quickly to larger amounts of alcohol until it takes a great quantity for that person to become drunk. Some alcoholics even find their performance improves slightly as they drink, then gives way as they become drunk. This is yet another lie the disease tells you — that you’re better off drinking because it helps you work better!

Alcoholism progresses along the same stages as other drug abuse. Eventually, regular use gives way to risky use and finally, dependence. At this point, there’s so much alcohol flooding into the body that according to Dr. James Milman, author of the book “Under the Influence,” the cell membranes actually become resistant to the effects of alcohol. It’s as if over exposure makes them numb to alcohol’s effects. It takes a very big quantity of alcohol to give you the same effects.

In the addiction and dependency stages of alcoholism, you’re so soaked in alcohol that every system and every cell is impacted. Constant, chronic drinking starts to break down your metabolism.

Four systems are impacted by chronic, late-stage alcoholism:

  1. Immune system: Chronic alcoholics can no longer ward off diseases as effectively as they once could. They’re susceptible to all sorts of colds, flus and infections. The immune system’s cells don’t react quickly or as efficiently as they once did, leading to an overall “run down” body.
  2. Circulatory system: A late-stage alcoholic’s heart and circulatory system are compromised. High blood pressure, enlarged heart and an irregular heart beat may result.
  3. Gastrointestinal system: The stomach may be so irritated from alcohol that ulcers develop. The mouth, throat, esophagus, and stomach become irritated and inflamed, and bleeding can result. Alcoholics are also more likely to develop stomach and colon cancer than non-drinkers. The liver is the most compromised of all the digestive organs. Because it metabolizes alcohol and is constantly soaked in it, it never gets a chance to recover and rejuvenate. Fatty liver deposits, which may eventually lead to scarring, can result in nausea, jaundice and death.
  4. Respiratory system: Alcohol can also make you more prone to breathing problems. Bronchitis, emphysema and pneumonia are common in alcoholics because the body’s normal defenses are compromised.

late-stage of alcoholism

The good news is that most, if not all, of these problems can be reversed when you stop drinking. The liver can repair itself from approximately 60 percent of the damage within 30 days, according to the University of Iowa, meaning that even heavy alcohol use and dependence may be reversed if the alcoholic stops drinking.

Detox will set the stage for your recovery. During detox, your body starts the process of withdrawing from the substances you’ve abused, like alcohol. Over time, your body can adapt back to its pre-addiction state, although it is never safe to use drugs or alcohol again if you’ve become dependent on them.


Are You in the Stages of Addiction?

Ask yourself the following questions and answer them honestly to see if you are in any of these stages of addiction. If you are, contact 12 Keys for more information and assistance.

“Drugs” in these questions refers to both drugs and alcohol use.

Do you…

      • Use drugs weekly? Daily?
      • Lie about your drug use?
      • Go to work or school high?
      • Use drugs even when you know you shouldn’t, like when you have an important event coming up?
      • Need drugs every day just to function?
      • Take different drugs to come down off a high or to wake up?
      • Feel intense cravings if you don’t get drugs frequently?
      • Hide drugs around the house just so you have some in reserve, in case you can’t get them right away?
      • Spend more than you should on your drug habit?
      • Steal to support your drug habit?
      • Hide your habit from your family or friends?
      • Think a lot about taking drugs, using drugs, or how to get drugs?
      • Need drugs just to get through a normal day?

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, chances are good that you’re already in the abuse or addiction category of the stages of addiction.

Recovery Begins at 12 Keys

The stages of addiction don’t have to end in hopelessness. We can help.

Addiction is not hopeless

Once you arrive, the recovery process starts with detox. During detox, we’ll make sure you stay safe and as comfortable as possible.

After detox, recovery begins by meeting with our staff and creating a personal plan that fits your needs. We don’t believe in ‘cookie cutter’ approaches to treatment. We know you’re an individual, and we treat you like an individual.

Your daily recovery plan may include 12 step meetings, individual or group counseling as well as other therapies to help you get better. We also include plenty of down time to rest, reflect, work on your recovery materials and just get to know you better.

Outdoor activities like horseback riding, swimming and more help us get to know you and help you to get some exercise. Great meals and a family-like atmosphere make 12 Keys a comfortable place to stay.

Remember how we said earlier that your body likes to be in homeostasis, or balance? Recovery is also about regaining your balance. Body, mind, spirit and family are all important to that balance. We work with you to find that balance again and to create a solid grounding for your recovery work after you leave 12 Keys.

If you think you’re in one of the stages of addiction, or you know that you or a loved one have a problem with drugs, alcohol or both, give us a call. We are available 24/7. Our staff includes people who have successfully recovered from addiction, so we understand exactly what’s going on when you call us. Get started on your recovery and contact us today.

The Addiction Blog