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What Are The Stages of Addiction?

stages of addiction

For most people, addiction doesn’t form overnight. Instead, the path to addiction is a deceptive, progressive one that starts with initiation or initial use, and moves on to experimentation. As people continue to use substances, physiological and psychological changes occur that alter how their minds and bodies respond to them.

Throughout the experimental phase of addiction, substances aren’t being used regularly, and people have the pervasive sense that they can stop at any time. Experimentation gradually begets regular use.

At this point, negative consequences are often experienced. A person may begin to feel tired and depressed, and may start falling behind at work or school, or under-performing in other life areas. As the body adapts to substance use as its new norm, the risks of addiction heighten.

Understanding the phases of addiction is important. Although people move towards addiction at varying paces and in varying ways, the process is believed to be a linear one. Unless substance use is halted at or before the regular use phase, most people will eventually become physically and emotionally reliant.

Denial is always a major part of the journey towards addiction. Moreover, as people progress in their addictive behaviors, their denial can grow exponentially. Whether you’ve been struggling with substance use or you’re concerned about the substance use of someone you love, seeking help early on is always the most effective way to put addictive habits and addiction itself to an end. At Recovery Bay Center, we offer a variety of intervention and treatment services for helping people with substance use disorder reclaim their lives.

How Regular Substance Use Progresses to Full-Blown Addiction

Many people enter the initiation phase of addiction as the result of peer pressure. Most drink or use drugs for the very first time at parties or in other social settings. Accessibility, age, and self-esteem are all factors that play a role in determining whether or not a person will try a substance. Initiation and experimentation are often viewed as being a part of a single, introductory stage of addiction.

During experimentation, people aren’t using drugs or alcohol on a daily or weekly basis, but they may begin turning to substances as a means for alleviating pressure, stress, or social discomfort. While experimentation typically involves substance use in high-access social settings, regular use is the phase during which people actively start seeking substances out. After a person has moved beyond and experimentation, the stages of addiction include:

  • Regular substance use
  • High-risk use or substance abuse
  • Physical and psychological dependence
  • Substance use disorder or full-blown addiction

During regular use, not only are people actively seeking substances out, but they are also increasing the frequency at which they use them. This can mean going from drinking at the occasional party to starting to drink most nights and every weekend. Regular use has moderate consequences and will gradually take a greater and greater toll on the person’s body.

Developing a Tolerance

Over time and with repeated exposure, tolerance is developed. It is the development of tolerance that leads to high-risk use or substance abuse. At this stage, more and more of a substance is needed to achieve the same feelings of confidence, elation, high-energy, or stress relief that a substance once provided. With high-risk use, a person’s inhibitions are regularly lowered and the consequences of use can include:

  • Increased risk of contracting STDs
  • Increased risk of unwanted pregnancy
  • Job loss
  • DUI charges or other criminal charges
  • Violent altercations due to heightened aggression

Family members and friends often reach out during the high-risk use stage. At this point, it becomes virtually impossible to overlook the changes in a person’s behavior, personality, appearance, and overall lifestyle.

Unfortunately, the one person who’s least likely to see these changes is the fast-developing addict themselves. Denial is often at its highest when people are actively abusing substances. Many people convince themselves that they feel and function better when they’re intoxicated or high. Moreover, the damaging effects of substance abuse have yet to become sufficiently severe for changing their minds.

Dependency forms as a consequence of repeated substance abuse. The defining element of dependency is the development of adverse physical and psychological reactions to quitting. Throughout the initial, experimental stages of substance use, abstaining is unlikely to cause noticeable and uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms such as shaking, sweating, or hallucinations.

However, once a person has become physiologically reliant upon a substance, abstaining or quitting “cold turkey” is often unsafe to do without the right medical support. When people are in the dependency phase of addiction, their tolerance levels are usually dangerously high. The costs of supporting their habits are unmanageable, and the consequences of use are rapid, widespread, and frequently irreparable.

Full-blown addiction occurs when an individual is no longer capable of functioning without the substance of their choice. When a person is addicted to drugs or alcohol, their first priority is always getting high. As a result, many of their personal relationships are lost.

Many people face joblessness and homelessness as a consequence of addiction as well. However, it’s incredibly important to note that addicted individuals can also be high-functioning addicts.

Much like all other addicts, these are people who have progressed beyond physical and psychological dependency, and who rely daily on substances to keep themselves going. Despite their high tolerance levels and their excessively high levels of substance use, they can continue going to work, paying their bills, and making regular efforts to keep their families intact. High-functioning addicts are largely able to maintain all outward signs of normalcy. However, their substance use still has a negative impact on their health, their lives, and on everyone around them. 

High-functioning addicts can be temperamental, manipulative, and emotionally and physically abusive to those who love them. With constantly lowered inhibitions, functioning addicts have a high likelihood of engaging in high-risk sexual behaviors, lying, stealing, and taking other unsavory actions to either support their habits or hide them.

More importantly, most functioning addicts lack the ability to maintain outward appearances entirely on their own. These individuals are usually supported by enabling family members or friends whose efforts to help ultimately end up supporting their addictions.

At Recovery Bay, our services are streamlined for meeting the needs of people at all stages of addiction. With options in mental health support, medically assisted detox, and residential treatment, we can help you reclaim your life regardless of the nature or stage of your substance use disorder. Our counselors are available 24 hours per day. Thus, if you’re ready to start the path to recovery, we’re always ready to assist.