Understanding the Cycle of Addiction: How Many Stages Are There?

Addiction doesn't form spontaneously during one night - instead it's result of long process of repeated substance abuse which gradually changes way person views drug & how body reacts.

Understanding the Cycle of Addiction: How Many Stages Are There?

Addiction is not something that happens overnight. It is a long process of repeated substance abuse that gradually changes the way a person views a drug and how their body reacts to it. This process follows a linear pattern, and can be divided into stages, starting with the first use and leading to addiction. Although there is some debate about how many stages there are for addiction, seven is one of the most popular numbers to chart the process.

Knowing each stage and the behaviors associated with them is a valuable way to identify when someone is at risk of suffering from an addiction or has already developed it. As each stage progresses, so do the dangers associated with drug use, as the ability to stop using it becomes much more difficult. The first stage is experimentation. At this point, the user has stopped testing the drug on their own and is now taking it in different contexts to see how it affects their life. Generally, at this stage, the drug is related to social activities such as experiencing pleasure or relaxing after a long day.

For teens, it's used to improve the party atmosphere or manage the stress of schoolwork. Adults enter into experimentation mainly for pleasure or to combat stress. Stage two is characterized by little or no desire to use the drug and the person will continue to make a conscious decision whether to use or not. They can use it impulsively or in a controlled way, and the frequency of both options depends mainly on the nature of the person and the reason they consume it. There is no dependency at this time, and the individual can still easily stop taking the medication if they so choose.

As a person continues to experiment with a substance, its use normalizes and moves from periodic to regular use. This doesn't mean that they use it every day, but rather that there is some kind of pattern associated with it. The pattern varies by person, but some cases may be that they take it every weekend or during periods of emotional distress such as loneliness, boredom, or stress. At this point, social users can begin taking their chosen medication on their own, in turn eliminating the social element of their decision. Drug use can also become problematic at this time and have a negative impact on the person's life. For example, the person might start showing up for work hungover or high after a night of drinking alcohol or marijuana.

There is still no addiction at this time, but the individual is likely to think about the chosen substance more often and may have begun to develop a mental dependence on it. When this happens, quitting smoking becomes more difficult, but it's still a manageable goal without outside help. Stage four marks when regular use has continued to increase and now often has a negative impact on their life. While a periodic hangover at work or an event is acceptable for Stage three, in Stage four instances like that become a regular occurrence and their effects become apparent. Many drinkers are arrested for driving while intoxicated at this time, and it is likely that all users will see their work or school performance being significantly affected.

Frequent use can also lead to financial difficulties where they didn't exist before. The hallmark of entering Stage five is that a person's drug use is no longer recreational or medical, but rather because they become dependent on the substance of choice. This is sometimes seen as a broad stage that includes forming a tolerance and dependence, but by now, the individual should have developed a tolerance by now. As a result, this stage should only be marked by a dependence which can be physical, psychological, or both. For physical dependence, the individual has abused the chosen drug long enough for their body to adapt to its presence and learn to trust it. If use is stopped abruptly, the body will react by going into retreat which is characterized by uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous symptoms which must be handled by medical professionals.

In most cases people choose to continue using it rather than seeking help because it's the easiest and quickest way to avoid withdrawal. With some medications especially prescription medications, the individual can enter this stage through psychological dependence before a physical one is formed. When this happens, they believe that they need the medication in order to function as a normal person. Here, the drug commonly becomes a coping mechanism for difficult times and then extended to cases where it really shouldn't be needed. For example, a patient taking pain relievers may begin to over-medicate as they perceive moderate pain as severe pain. In either case they take medication because they have come to an understanding that they need it in some way to continue throughout life.

Once this mentality takes hold addiction is almost certain. Dependence and addiction are words that are sometimes used interchangeably although they are similar and often connected in drug use they are different. One of the biggest differences is that when someone develops an addiction their drug use is no longer a conscious choice until that time it remains at least a shadow of one. People at this stage feel that they can no longer cope with life without having access to their chosen medication and as a result lose total control of their choices and actions.