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Stages of Addiction

While drug addiction can be something that happens immediately, even in as little as a single use, this is not usually the case. Instead, addiction is typically a progression of sequential stages.

9 Minute Read | Published Oct 06 2023 | Updated Nov 06 2023

That addiction is not typically immediate is both good and bad. It’s good that addiction usually does not begin to take control of your life after a single use. It’s bad because, once addiction takes hold, it has usually been around for some time and is therefore likely to be more severe. 

Once addiction has become ingrained, it is often difficult to break, but with the right addiction treatment, it is possible to go on to live a life free from drugs and alcohol. If you have a loved one you believe might be struggling with addiction, keep an eye out for any of these stages of addiction. Recovery is only possible with knowledge.

Addiction Stage 1: Experimentation

Drug experimentation can be difficult to address because culturally we have trivialized this very serious act. Experimentation usually begins with what many consider to be the most “innocuous” drugs, (alcohol, marijuana, and nicotine), and movies and television tell us that this is not something to fret over. 

Drug use among teens college students in particular is often seen as “just a phase.” The problem is, experimentation, even with alcohol or marijuana, can lead to developing an addiction, whether that addiction is marijuana or alcohol or other, more dangerous drugs

The experimentation stage is not the stage to sit back and see what happens because you don’t believe it’s serious, it’s exactly the right time to step in because the habits that addicts find so difficult to break have yet to set in.

Addiction Stage 2: Increased Use and Tolerance

The more an individual uses drugs or alcohol, the more of that substance they will have to take to experience the same effects. This is known as tolerance.

Tolerance is dangerous because the abuser uses more and more of a substance, which is more likely to cause addiction, and more likely to increase the severity of the addiction.

Addiction Stage 3: Chemical Dependence

The human body is incredibly adaptable, It will adapt to the presence of a new substance. For example, opioid drugs such as heroin mimic the effects of the body’s pain signals, which is how they reduce pain. If you routinely use opioids, the body will stop producing its natural pain signals because it will see them as unnecessary. If you then stop taking opioids, your body will need time to recognize their absence and create new pain signals.

During the time when the body is adjusting to the lack of substance, you are likely to experience a number of symptoms known as withdrawal. Withdrawal symptoms are typically unpleasant, sometimes extremely so. Alcohol hangovers are actually a form of withdrawal.

If you experience withdrawal symptoms when you cease taking a substance, you are dependent on that substance. Dependence is not the same as addiction, although it is an important component and a necessary step before true addiction is reached.

Addiction Stage 4: Addiction

Addiction is a combination of dependence on a substance and negative actions or effects caused by the use of that substance or avoidance of withdrawal from that substance.

True addiction can only be identified through the use of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM). The DSM recognizes 11 criteria that may or may not be present in an addiction. In order to be diagnosed with  an addiction, an individual must exhibit at least 3 of the criteria. The more criteria the individual meets, the more severe their addiction is considered.

The 11 criteria  are:

  • Using the substance in a way that is dangerous to yourself or others
  • Relationship problems caused by substance use
  • Failure to meet responsibilities at home, school, or work
  • The appearance of withdrawal symptoms when use is reduced or stopped
  • Tolerance
  • Using larger amounts of the substance and for longer amounts of time
  • Repeated failures to control use or quit
  • Large amounts of time spent acquiring, using, and recovering from using the substance
  • Medical or psychological problems related to use
  • Stopping previously enjoyed activities due to substance use
  • Cravings for the substance

Addiction Stage 5: Recovery or Death

One substance addiction has taken hold, most individuals will follow one of two paths. They will either recover from their addiction, or it will eventually kill them.

Sometimes, addiction kills quickly, as in the case of an overdose, a DUI-caused car crash, or a heart attack, for example. Sometimes, addiction kills slowly, as in the case of cancer, emphysema, cirrhosis, or AIDS. However, unless the user finds a way to recover, the end result from addiction is almost always death.

Recovery is a lifelong process by which a former addiction sufferer overcomes their addiction and develops and uses a variety of practices to keep it from becoming active again. Some former addiction sufferers are able to recover on their own, while others require professional treatment.

Professional addiction treatment will vary from patient to patient and from facility to facility, but with thousands of available options, there is a fit for every individual.

Start Your Recovery Today

If you or a loved one are ready to choose recovery, we are here to help. Call today to speak with a counselor. You can also fill out our contact form on this website and a client care specialist will reach out to you. You have the power to change your life. Use it before it’s too late.


bullet National Institute on Drug Abuse (2020)
"Drugs, Brains, and Behavior: The Science of Addiction"
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bullet American Society of Addiction Medicine (2021)
"The ASAM Criteria: Treatment Criteria for Addictive, Substance-Related, and Co-Occurring Conditions"
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bullet Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (2021)
"TIP 63: Medications for Opioid Use Disorder"
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bullet Center for Substance Abuse Treatment (1999)
"Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series, No. 24"
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bullet Prochaska, J. O., DiClemente, C. C., & Norcross, J. C. (1992)
"In search of how people change: Applications to addictive behaviors. American Psychologist, 47(9), 1102-1114"
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bullet McLellan, A. T., Lewis, D. C., O’Brien, C. P., & Kleber, H. D. (2000)
"Drug dependence, a chronic medical illness: Implications for treatment, insurance, and outcomes evaluation. JAMA, 284(13), 1689-1695"
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bullet Miller, W. R., & Rollnick, S. (2013)
"Motivational Interviewing: Helping People Change (3rd ed.). Guilford Press"
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