The 5 Stages of Addiction

Addiction is one of the most common mental illnesses in the United States, affecting millions of Americans every day. An estimated 21 million Americans age 12 or older (7.8 percent of the population) required treatment for substance abuse in 2016, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse defines addiction as “a chronic, relapsing brain disease that is characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences.” Addiction encompasses dependence on alcohol, opioids and nicotine, among many other substances.

Addiction can affect people’s relationships, economic security and health. In the most drastic cases, it leads to death. In 2015, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that more than 50,000 people in the United States died from drug-related overdoses, an all-time high. This increase is largely attributed to the worsening opioid epidemic, which is gripping communities nationwide.

Signs of Addiction

It’s important to know the cycle of addiction and its stages so medical professionals, friends and family can intervene. Vulnerability to addiction differs from person to person and is impacted by both environmental and genetic factors, including mental health, family history of addiction or social environment.

As addiction takes hold, individuals exhibit certain behaviors, according to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.

These include:

  • A loss of control
  • Abandoning hobbies and activities
  • Poor performance at school or work
  • Unexplained financial problems

Stages of Addiction

First Use

The first step to addiction is trying the substance. It can be as fast as taking the first drink or smoking a cigarette. Or, people may have used drugs in the past without developing a dependency, but are now moving on to a more addictive substance.

Part of the challenge is when the first exposure to drugs is through legal means. Opioids, for example, are often prescribed to patients as a way to deal with persistent pain. The first dose may relieve that pain temporarily, but over time as the body grows accustomed to the drug, relief no longer comes, sometimes prompting individuals to take more of the drug than is medically recommended or seeking a stronger dosage.

Regular Use

As people become regular users, they begin to display a pattern. Sometimes they may use only on the weekends or just at night while spending time with friends, but oftentimes these individuals will begin to show the signs of addiction as the substance becomes more important in their lives.

Risky Use

As use deepens, people may begin to exhibit dangerous behavior, such as driving while drunk or high. The substance in question may impact one’s ability to succeed at work or school. Relationships with friends or significant others may also begin to deteriorate.


At this stage, the individual has developed a tolerance to the substance and needs a dangerous amount of it to feel good again. Furthermore, going without the substance for a certain amount of time can induce withdrawal symptoms, such as muscle cramps, vomiting or fevers. Cravings for the substance, both physical and psychological, can be intense.

Substance Use Disorder

At this point, individuals cannot function in daily life without their substance of choice. People with addiction may lose their job, drop out of school and even face homelessness. Despite these significant consequences, individuals will continue to abuse their substance.

How Behavioral Health Professionals Can Help

The good news is that help is available. Behavioral health professionals can help people with addiction learn coping mechanisms that enable them to function without their substance. Through mental and emotional support, behavioral health professionals can help stop a patient’s downward spiral into addiction.

Alvernia University offers a fully online behavioral health degree, which prepares students for graduate studies or careers in hospitals, rehabilitation centers, assistance programs, prevention and intervention centers, and other social agencies. The program takes place in a flexible and convenient online learning environment that accommodates students’ work and personal schedules.

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