What Are the 4 Stages of Addiction?

Medically Reviewed on 12/9/2021
What Are the 4 Stages of Addiction
The four stages of drug addiction are experimentation, regular use, dependency, and finally, addiction. Learn more about what happens during each stage

Drug addiction or substance abuse disorder follows a fairly formulaic path. While it typically starts out as fun, it can eventually end up being dangerous and even life-threatening.

Understanding how your brain and body react differently throughout the different stages of addiction can help you prevent you from going too far down the road to full-blown addiction.

Stage 1: Experimentation

Addiction often starts out as experimentation. Teenagers in particular are likely to experiment with drugs because of peer pressure or curiosity, although adults aren’t immune to this as well. 

Other reasons for drug experimentation may include:

  • Relieving mental stress
  • Alleviating workplace stress
  • Easing social anxiety
  • Coping with a distressing life situation
  • Alleviating physical discomfort

Some people may experiment and leave it at that. However, for many, this first stage simply opens the door to the next stage of addiction—regular use.

Stage 2: Regular use

In this next stage, drug use may become a lifestyle rather than a temporary or recreational thing. Users may find that they begin to rely on drugs to get through social situations, or that certain experiences aren’t as satisfying without the drug.

As you use drugs more and more regularly, you may find that what once helped relieve stress or boredom is now one of the factors that contributes to it.

Regular or social use can increase the risk of:

  • Exaggerated mood swings
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Preoccupation with drugs
  • Withdrawal from friends and family
  • Lack of interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • Risky behaviors, such as driving under the influence

Stage 3: Dependency

After repeated drug use, there comes a stage where you have built a tolerance to the drug and now begin to crave and rely on it more and more, to the point where you prioritize drug use over other things in life. Warning signs of this stage may include:

At this stage, the drug has become a reward for the body, and it starts to crave drugs with greater intensity. The psychological craving combined with biological needs can result in addiction or dependency.

Some behavioral changes seen during this stage include:

  • Need for stronger, more frequent doses
  • Borrowing or stealing money
  • Neglecting family, friends, or work
  • Changing peer groups

Stage 4: Addiction

With full-blown addiction, drug users often spend much of their time thinking about how to obtain the next high. At this point, they may not be able to quit even if they want to. Some of the behavioral changes commonly seen in this stage include:

  • Skipping meals
  • Neglecting basic needs
  • Deteriorating grooming habits
  • Lack of sleep
  • No fixed schedule
  • Suicidal thoughts

Consequences of this stage include:

  • Job loss
  • Increase in criminal behaviors
  • Sustained poverty
  • Seeking charity
  • Low immunity that leads to infections and diseases

What are the stages of addiction recovery?

Depending on the behavior of addicts during the recovery phase, there are five stages of addiction recovery:

  1. Precontemplation: The person is unwilling to stop their drug use, whether because they are unaware of the consequences of their behavior or in denial. In this phase, they are not thinking about reasons to stop drug use.
  2. Contemplation: The person may have a slight change in their thoughts about discontinuing drug use. They are aware of the pros and cons of drug use but haven’t planned ways to stop their habits. This stage comes with a probability of finding a solution to the problem, and addicts may be open to learning ways to control their addiction.
  3. Preparation stage: The person identifies and understands that they have a problem with addiction and are ready to make positive change. People in this stage are open to substance abuse treatment and understand challenges they may face along the way. Additionally, they may identify ways to manage their cravings.
  4. Action stage: This phase can be difficult for many because it involves breaking old habits and developing new habits. The success of this phase is dependent on several factors, such as proper support, education, and suggestions.
  5. Relapse prevention and recovery: The person tries to develop new behaviors to reduce cravings, which help them to prevent relapsing. It is important to consider that relapse is possible even if the person has completely stopped drug use and is no longer experiencing cravings.


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Medically Reviewed on 12/9/2021
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