The Addiction Cycle: What Are The Stages of Addiction

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Sometimes there is the assumption that addiction is simply a part of a person’s character. This idea can lead to the perception that an individual who is struggling with substance abuse may have had one drink or tried one drug one time and immediately became addicted. However, the reality of addiction is much more complex than that. Understanding the addiction cycle can help prevent addiction and shed light on why certain treatment approaches are taken in the battle against substance abuse.


How Is Addiction Defined?

Addiction is defined by the American Society of Addiction Medicine as a chronic brain disease. The disease affects the brain’s pleasure, reward, memory, and motivation functions. Just like many chronic diseases, addiction does not develop overnight. Often, a number of circumstances align over time that causes a “normal” person to become addicted to drugs or alcohol. The process of developing an addiction or alcoholism usually occurs over a series of stages. Furthermore, just like other chronic illnesses, addiction turns into a cycle of symptoms and effects.

The stages of addiction may happen in a short period of time, or they may happen over months or even years. For example, someone who casually drinks may develop alcoholism over the course of many years. Similarly, someone might responsibly take prescription narcotics for many months and then overtime develop an addiction.


What Are the Stages of Addiction?

The stages of addiction follow a continuous build up of both symptoms and effects. Meaning, the longer someone abuses drugs and/or alcohol the further along in the stages they become and the more effects they feel and experience. The stages of addiction are as follows:

  1. Start of use 
  2. Abuse
  3. Tolerance development
  4. Dependence development 
  5. Addiction
  6. Relapse


First Stage: The Start Of Substance Use

There are a multitude of reasons that someone who ends up struggling with substance abuse might try the drug to start with. It can be as seemingly innocent as getting a prescription to a mental health disorder, to trying a first drink, or even simply peer pressure. Regardless, the first step towards addiction is the initial use.

The first use leading to addiction is often a matter of unique and individual circumstances. There are a number of risk factors that increase a person’s chances of developing addiction or alcoholism including:

  • Family history of addiction or other mental health disorder
  • Abuse or neglect as a child
  • Chaotic living environment
  • Peer group or family that is permissive or abuses illicit substances
  • Depression, social issues, or loneliness


Second Stage: Abuse

The second stage of the addiction cycle is abuse of the substance. Substance abuse is the point at which someone is using the substance on a recurring and improper basis. Substance abuse is defined as using the substance in a harmful way. This could look different depending on the type of substance being used and how the person is using it. For example, someone may be drinking more than the recommended amount on a daily basis. Another example is someone using their narcotic medication more than what is prescribed to them in either or both amount and frequency. 


Third Stage: The Development Of Tolerance

The third stage of addiction is the development of tolerance. Tolerance is when the body develops a tolerance to the substance being abused. This normally happens over time. Once tolerance has developed, an individual must use more in amount and frequency of the drug in order to feel the same effects they previously did. Once tolerance has developed, the fourth stage of addiction, dependency normally develops shortly thereafter.


Fourth Stage: Dependency 

At a certain point dependency both psychologically and physically will develop in someone who has started abusing substances. For example, someone who has been using opioids for a long time will normally feel flu-like symptoms when they reduce or stop taking the drug. At this point, it is highly recommended that an individual attend a detox and drug rehab facility in order to properly heal the body from the dependency on drugs or alcohol.

It is important to understand that physical dependency to a substance is extremely dangerous. Some withdrawal symptoms, like seizures, can even be deadly. Thus, it is imperative that people get the proper medical treatment while going through the detoxing process.


Fifth Stage: Addiction


Addiction is a chronic mental health disorder that results in specific symptoms and behaviors that are utilized as diagnosis criteria. According to the DSM-5 the signs and symptoms of substance use disorders include:


  • Using more of the substance than the person originally intended
  • Being unable to stop using the substance
  • Experiencing relationship problems based on substance use
  • Spending large amounts of time seeking or using the substance
  • Reducing participation in activities in favor of substance use
  • Being unable to maintain daily responsibilities due to substance use
  • Craving the substance
  • Continuing to use the substance despite negative health effects
  • Regularly using the substance in dangerous situations (while driving or operating machinery, etc.)
  • Developing tolerance for the substance
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when use is stopped or reduced

Stage Six: Relapse

A symptom of most chronic diseases is the potential for relapse of the condition. In chronic diseases like asthma, relapse is often expected as the individual and their doctors work together in order to find treatments that manage the condition. Addiction is no different from any other chronic condition. Relapse rates for addiction are estimated to be between 40-60 percent, this is similar to asthma which comes in at 50-70 percent. Sometimes the initial line of treatment for addiction isn’t quite right and relapse happens. However, relapse does not equate to failure. Relapse simply means that treatment needs to be adjusted in order to put addiction back into remission.

Getting Help For The Stages Of Addiction

Here at The Healing Center our drug rehab in Fort Lauderdale we can help you at any point in the stages of addiction. We provide safe and effective medical and holistic addiction treatment services in the beautiful setting of South Florida. If you or a loved one is trapped in the cycle of addiction, then don’t struggle alone. We are here to help you. Contact our admissions team today in order to learn more about our programs.