Addiction is a complex and chronic disease. If you’ve ever asked yourself, how does addiction work, you would not be the first.

While it does not always take an excessively long amount of time to form one, they rarely form overnight.

Addiction is typically the result of consistent bouts of abuse. Over time, your perception of it changes, and your body and mind’s responses to it change, too.

Depending on the individual, drug, dosages, and other substances present, the amount of time it takes can vary. 

This can make it hard to predict the timeline for forming an addiction.

But since addictions tend to follow the same patterns, we can break them down into stages.

Starting from the first experience with this drug and ending with the addiction, there are seven stages of addiction. 

What Are the Seven Stages of Addiction?

Not everyone agrees on the number of stages. Some argue that there are more and others argue that there are less.

But when it comes to breaking down the stages of addiction, seven is one of the most common numbers, and these are the common stages mentioned: 

  • Initiation 
  • Experimentation 
  • Regular use 
  • Risky use
  • Dependence
  • Addiction
  • Treatment or crisis 

Understanding these stages can help us identify when we or someone we love is at risk or already addicted. 

Initiation and Experimentation

Initiation and ExperimentationThe first two stages of addiction are initiation and experimentation. Initiation occurs the first time an individual tries a substance.

While initiation can occur at any age, people are most likely to begin abusing drugs in adolescence or young adulthood. 

This statistic includes tobacco, alcohol, and illegal and prescription drugs.

By the time high school students are seniors, almost 70% will have tried alcohol, half will have taken an illegal drug, almost 40% will have smoked a cigarette, and over 20% will have used a prescription drug recreationally.

We can mitigate these risks by staying informed, informing our children and loved ones, and keeping an eye on our prescriptions.

Prescription painkiller misuse is the second most common form of illicit drug use in the country.

And most teens or young adults who misuse prescription drugs get them from a friend or relative first. 

Adolescent or early adulthood drug initiation can impair normal development and have serious long-term consequences.

But initiation does not always lead to addiction. Many may experiment with drugs or alcohol in adolescence or young adulthood without becoming addicted. 

But the problem is that the risk is always there. And those at-risk individuals move from the initiation stage to the experimentation stage.

This stage involves going back for more. Usually, someone in the experimentation stage will take the same drugs in different situations. 

For adolescents or young adults, this might mean taking drugs at parties or to destress during stressful weeks at school.

For adults, it often means taking the same drugs or abusing alcohol to combat stress, unwind, or celebrate an event.

Since no dependency has formed yet, it is still easy enough to quit during this stage. 

Regular Use vs. Risky Use

As experimentation continues, use becomes normalized. It grows from occasional to regular use.

This may not mean everyday use but will involve a pattern.

Depending on the person, it could be every weekend, every other day, or during periods of distress or boredom. 

This is often the stage where users progress from social use to using drugs or alcohol alone.

It is also when negative consequences begin to appear. Arriving at work or school high or hungover is common in the regular use stage. 

Addiction has not formed yet but a mental reliance may have. Quitting without professional help is still possible with the right approach.

The risky use stage makes quitting this way less likely. During this stage, regular hangovers and negative impacts become more likely. 

And many of the effects of alcohol and drug abuse become more noticeable.

This might include DUIs, relationship conflicts, problems with performance at school or work, hiding habits, or neglecting responsibilities.

These changes may still be subtle enough that they are easier for loved ones to spot than the person experiencing them. 


DependenceStage five is when most become reliant on the substance they are abusing.

Their drug or alcohol use can no longer be considered medical or recreational.

Someone in this stage has already built a tolerance and a psychological or physical dependence, or both. 

The body and brain have adapted to the substance, and one or both has become reliant on it.

When someone dependent on drugs or alcohol tries to stop using, the body enters withdrawals.

Withdrawals often involve intense cravings and other uncomfortable or even painful symptoms. 

Some withdrawal symptoms can even be life-threatening, which is one reason why professional detoxes are recommended.

Unfortunately, untreated withdrawal symptoms often lead to relapse because it is the fastest way to escape them. From here, it is a short step to addiction. 


The words addiction and dependence are often used interchangeably, but there are some subtle differences.

Once an addiction forms, there is little control left in the situation.

Drug or alcohol abuse is no longer a conscious choice or a compulsion. Instead, it feels like a necessity. 

Contrary to popular belief, addiction is not about a lack of willpower or another character flaw.

Addiction alters our brain chemistry, making us feel like we cannot function without the substances we have become addicted to. 

Compulsive lying, avoiding loved ones, prioritizing alcohol or drugs over responsibilities and hobbies, relationship conflicts, and health concerns are all more likely at this stage.

A lifestyle change and professional help are often necessary by this point. 

Stages of Addiction vs. Stages of Recovery

The seventh stage is crisis or treatment. The addiction has reached a breaking point and will only be altered by getting professional help or experiencing a crisis.

The longer addiction goes on, the higher the risk of overdose or other health impairments. 

A crisis can be avoided by attending addiction treatments. And the same way that there are phases of addiction, the recovery process occurs in stages, too.

Treatment Options: The Continuum of Care

Treatment Options The Continuum of Care

For many people, the first stage of recovery is detox. Detox helps mitigate withdrawal symptoms and provides access to the care, support and guidance of a dedicated medical team who will monitor your progress as drugs or alcohol are eliminated from the body.

At Pathfinders, we assess each client’s needs during the admissions process and refer them to an appropriate detox facility as needed before beginning treatment. 

Afterward, those with moderate to severe addictions may start with an inpatient or residential program before graduating into an intensive outpatient or partial hospitalization program.

Others with milder addictions or family and work obligations may start with one of these part-time programs instead and progress from there.

Everyone is different. We will help you choose the path that will help you the most. 

Getting Help at a Pathfinders Recovery Center

Pathfinders: no matter your stage, we’re here for you.

From residential treatment through aftercare support group meetings, we’ll meet you where you are and help you get where you need to be.

Call our addiction specialists today at (877) 224-0761 to get started.


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  • (877) 224-0761
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