Understanding the 5 Stages of Drug Addiction

Understanding the early stages of drug addiction can help you or your loved one get the help that is needed, and can hopefully prevent drug use from turning into a full-fledged addiction.

How Drug Use and Addiction Starts

The decision to start using drugs can occur for a variety of reasons, but ultimately, it’s human instinct to seek out things that make us feel good. Every time the brain learns of something that makes us feel good, it stores the memory and the source of that good feeling, also known as a rush of dopamine.

When someone consumes drugs, the brain does not function as it would normally, and it begins to release more dopamine than it usually would, which creates a sensation of happiness or euphoria which lasts longer than a person would experience when they are not using drugs. This can cause regular activities that were once pleasurable to seem boring and pointless in comparison with drug use.

Drug addiction doesn’t happen instantly – it occurs through a gradual process that usually consists of 5 stages. Let’s dive deeper into what these 5 stages are, and what each one consists of.

1. First Use / Experimentation

No one starts drinking or using drugs thinking that they will ever become addicted, but addiction starts with simply experimenting with a substance. The desire for experimentation could come from the need to relieve stress and anxiety, coping with a difficult situation, alleviating physical pain, or it could be a result of social pressure.

For some, the use of the substance does not progress past this stage, but for others it can continue down the road to regular use.

2. Regular Use

Regularly using drugs is surpassing using them on a recreational basis. This poses the risk of becoming dependent on the drug. The individual may start feeling defensive about their drug usage at this stage, and is under the belief that they can still quit easily if they wanted to. However, doing drugs on a frequent basis makes it more of a routine, which makes it harder to quit.

3. Risky Use

Risky use implies that one continues to use drugs despite having suffered serious consequences as a result of your drug usage. They may start to exhibit risky or reckless behavior, such as driving while under the influence.

During this stage, people who are close to you may begin to notice changes in your behavior. You may be in denial about your behavior, and may lie to family members or employers in order to cover up how much you are using your desired substance. This can cause relational strife, and problems at work or school.

4. Tolerance & Dependence

After prolonged use of a substance, you can build up a tolerance and require more of the substance in order to feel the same effects that you felt when you first started using. Your body and mind become used to the constant supply of the substance, and no longer know how to function properly without it.

At this point, quitting the substance becomes difficult, due to the intense cravings and withdrawal symptoms that can occur when one tries to stop.

Types of Withdrawal Symptoms

  • Nausea
  • Headaches
  • Body aches
  • Sleep problems
  • Restlessness
  • Mood swings
  • Anxiety
  • Depression

How to Ease Withdrawal Symptoms Naturally

  • Exercise regularly – Exercise releases endorphins which can help stabilize your mood and reduce anxiety and depression.
  • Eat a balanced diet – Staying hydrated and eliminating junk food and caffeine from your diet helps reduce mood swings and brain fog.
  • Stick to a regular sleep schedule – Try to go to bed at the same time every night and wake up at the same time every morning. Adopting a regular sleep schedule can help reduce the risk of relapse.
  • Seek support – Whether relying on family members, a treatment professional, or a support group, it’s important to reach out to someone and let them know that you need help. Learning from others who have been through drug addiction and experienced withdrawal can help you navigate your own withdrawal symptoms and help you feel less alone in the process.

5. Addiction

A full-fledged addiction means that the person is abusing the substance and cannot go about their daily life without using it. A chemical change has taken place within the body, and the person will do anything in their power to obtain their drug(s) of choice. They spend the majority of their time high, and quitting at this stage feels impossible.

Signs of Addiction

There are many signs of addiction to look out for for yourself, or a loved one, including:

  • A loss of control
  • Loss of interest in previous hobbies and activities
  • Social withdrawal & isolation
  • Poor performance at school or work
  • Unexplained financial problems
  • Changes in mood or behavior
  • Continuing to use a substance after it has caused problems and consequences


Download 5 Stages of Addiction Infographic

When to Seek Professional Help for Addiction Treatment

You can start seeking treatment at any time during the 5 stages. You do not have to classify yourself as an addict in order to start seeking help. In fact, being proactive and getting treatment when you are at the behavioral change or tolerance stage can help you avoid ever getting to the addiction stage.

The first thing to do is determine your needs. Do you need detox, a sober living community? A flexible treatment program that allows you to still work and/or attend school?

If you are at the dependence or addiction stage, you will need to undergo a detox in a safe and professional environment. Cold turkey and at-home detox are mostly ineffective and in many cases, are dangerous. In a detox facility, you have access to medical professionals 24/7.

After you have completed the detox stage, you will need to participate in addiction recovery treatment in order to maintain sobriety and learn skills that will help you in your recovery.

At Paramount Recovery Center, we work one-on-one with each of our guests to ensure that they are stabilized in a safe and supervised environment, and then work with them to build a life beyond treatment. Our goal for each guest at Paramount is to equip them with the tools and resources they need for a successful recovery so that they can progress in their lives.

Learn more about our addiction recovery program or speak to our addiction counselors.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *