Millions of people in the United States are affected by addiction to drugs or alcohol. In fact, according to the National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics, almost 25 million Americans aged 12 and over struggle with substance use disorders. One of the most common mental illnesses in the country, addiction is defined by the National Institute on Drug Abuse as a chronic, relapsing brain disease. The individual has a compulsive need to seek and use their drug of choice regardless of any harmful consequences. This occurs because addiction changes the chemical structure of the brain.
Five Stages of Addiction
Just as no two people are exactly the same, no two addictions are exactly the same. Whether an addiction develops quickly or slowly depends on various factors, such as the types of drugs being abused, the person’s genetics, age when drug use began, their social environment, and whether or not the individual has any other mental health disorders. However, one thing is true for almost everyone with a substance use disorder: they will experience the onset of addiction in five distinct stages.
Knowing the stages is important because it helps us recognize early signs of a developing substance use disorder; family, friends, and medical professionals can then intervene and improve the chances of a successful recovery.
1. First Use or Experimentation
Using a drug or taking a drink for the first time often takes place at social gatherings. Adults may try drugs while hanging out with friends. Teenagers may drink at a party. Sometimes the first use is from a prescribed medication given to relieve pain. Once the person uses the substance for the first time, they know how it makes them feel. Many people can control their alcohol or drug use after their experimentation stage: for others, that first use is like a hook that pulls them in.
2. Regular Use or Continued Use
The next stage of addiction is the regular use of alcohol or drugs until it becomes a habit. This stage includes people who use alcohol or illicit substances recreationally as well as those who have continued taking prescription medication after their prescription has run out. During this stage, the person may notice that it takes them longer to recover from their high. This happens because their brain needs more time to chemically repair itself as it tries to come back into balance.
3. Tolerance, Risky Use, and Recklessness
One of the first warning signs of addiction is when a person builds up a tolerance to drugs or alcohol. When this happens, the person’s brain and body have become used to the amount of substances and have adjusted to it. To feel the same effect of the substance as before, the individual has to take more of it.
During this stage, people often begin to exhibit risky behavior as their substance abuse worsens. They may think it is okay to drive after having several drinks or using a drug; they may not realize how drunk or high they are. Their substance use may affect their ability at school or work. Personal relationships are often negatively affected.
At this stage of addiction, a person needs a dangerous amount of drugs or alcohol to feel good. They need higher doses or stronger potencies to keep up with their increasing tolerance levels. Without a constant supply of the substance, the person experiences withdrawal symptoms. Their brain has become chemically used to the drug and does not function well without it. The brain creates intense psychological and physical cravings for the substance. Only the use of the substance can make the negative symptoms temporarily disappear.
Once addiction develops, the person cannot function in everyday life without drugs or alcohol. A chemical change has taken place in their brain resulting in a chronic brain disease. Because withdrawal is so intense, the person will continue to use drugs or drink alcohol simply to avoid pain and feel somewhat “normal.” They no longer get pleasure from their use, but they are compelled to continue to use regardless of the negative impact on their health, family, friends, work, school, or anything else.
Substance use disorders affect the areas of the brain related to memory, learning, motivation, movement, judgment, emotion, and reward. Once the chemical changes happen in a person’s brain, it is almost impossible to stop using their substance of choice without professional help.
Help Is Available
If you or a loved one struggles with addiction to drugs or alcohol, you are not alone. Addiction can happen to anyone. Call and speak to a caring professional at Anabranch Recovery Center located in Terre Haute, Indiana. We will answer your questions, provide recommendations, and help you get started on your journey to recovery.