The Four Stages of Addiction

There are many factors that contribute to drug and alcohol addiction. Genetics play a major role, along with socioeconomic status, environmental influence, and preexisting mental health conditions. Addiction is a complex disease that grows over time and sometimes abruptly without the user even noticing they are becoming dependent. Understanding the four main stages of addiction is critical in recognizing if you or someone you love may have a substance abuse problem and needs to enter a treatment program. There are four main stages of addiction: experimentation, regular use, high-risk use, and dependency.


Substances use is often accepted and encouraged among young adults, particularly alcohol. It is important to remember that experimentation isn’t always harmless, and can result in death. Regardless of when a person becomes introduced to substances, every case must be considered on an individual basis. The individual using generally views the instance of using as a one-time occurrence, without recognizing that it could lead to a downward spiral of addiction.

Some individuals who become addicts find themselves unable to stop using after having experimented. In addiction, experimentation is not an experience of its own, but the start of a vicious cycle that ends only in death or abstaining from continued use of the substance.

Regular Use

At this stage in addiction, individuals find themselves at a critical crossroads, and the risk for dependency greatly increases. The occasional use of substances turns into a common occurrence and becomes another part of their routine. The user becomes fooled by a false sense of security and/or temporary relief that hinders their ability to step away from use.   Individuals begin justifying or making up excuses to avoid feelings of shame and guilt caused by their inability to walk away from their substance of choice. During this stage, users may show early signs of addiction including but not limited to, isolation or withdrawing from friends and family, and changes in moods.

In addiction, the regular use of substances is a time of transition. The user begins adjusting their life to accommodate the continued use. Those adjustments can include the compromise of safety and a shift in lifestyle. Regular use leads to the next level in the vicious stages of addiction.

High-risk Use

There is a very thin nearly invisible line between regular use and high-risk use, but it can be identified by continued use of substances regardless of severe legal and social consequences. The transition from stage two to stage three can occur rapidly and be difficult to detect in yourself or your loved one. What seemed to be harmless use that started out as a temporary escape from reality, now takes precedence in the user’s life. The substance becomes a priority in the life of the user. The user becomes determined and turns a blind eye to the consequences of their behaviors. At this point in addiction, cravings become unbearable and may drive the user to behave in ways that would seem out of their ordinary behavior.

High-risk use comes with numerous red flags that loved ones and even addicts can recognize. This is the last stage where the user can choose to abstain from the substance before losing all control and becoming fully dependent. The only way to survive high-risk use and not fall into dependence on substances is to abstain from use entirely.


Once an individual has become dependent upon a substance, they have now entered full-blown addiction. It is no longer a question of if the individual has lost all self-control to say no or step away from the drugs or alcohol. When their bodies do not receive the substance of choice, they begin to suffer withdrawal symptoms.

Withdrawal symptoms include but are not limited to

  • profuse sweating
  • tremors/shakes
  • anxiety
  • depression
  • vomiting
  • hallucinations

They see their substance of use as a necessity like food and water. Individuals who find themselves dependent on drugs or alcohol spend most of their time and money on obtaining and using substances. If they can no longer afford their habit, they will go to great lengths, such as stealing and prostituting, etc., to be sure they can stay high. Dependence means the substance comes first in life.

The Only Way Out Is Abstinence

The four stages of addiction can take as few as one use to span or can take the user years to spiral out of control. Every case of substance abuse takes its own path. Individualized treatment and therapy aimed at each person’s unique experience is necessary for long-term recovery. Every phase of addiction is analyzed in treatment. Clients are tasked with reflecting on their experience through the stages of addiction, and understanding how in the experimentation phase, while they were still in control, they were destined to lose control and reach dependency. It is important to understand that the four stages of addiction do not exist each on their own: the four stages of addiction are a cycle that leads to a dead end. Unless use is discontinued, experimentation leads to regular use; regular use inevitably becomes high-risk use; high-risk use becomes dependence. Unless use is discontinued, dependence continues until it kills the addict.

Long-term Recovery is Possible

To escape the cycle, those who suffer with addiction must internalize that the only way to survive addiction is abstinence. Understanding the stages of addiction, and how one leads to another, aids addicts in understanding that they will never be able to occasionally use the substances that consume their lives. The only way to survive addiction is to avoid all stages of addiction. If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction, at any stage, there is hope. Contact Midas Rehab and break the cycle. Our licensed experts are here to help.

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