man lying on the floor with pills and syringe on hand

4 Stages of Drug Addiction: from Experimentation to Full Blown Dependency

There are many factors that may contribute to drug addiction, including genetic and environmental influences, socio-economic status, personal behavioural patterns etc. However, most professionals within the field of addiction have agreed that there are 4 stages of drug addiction: experimentation, regular use, high-risk use, and addiction or dependency.

Many people will never move beyond Stage 1 experimentation, but most who progress beyond Stage 2 will, in fact, develop an addiction. Below is a breakdown of the 4 stages of drug addiction so that you can learn how to identify the four stages of substance abuse, recognise symptoms and signs of addiction, and know what to do about it.

Stage 1: Drug Experimentation

Although it might not necessarily lead to full-blown addiction, drug experimentation is in fact considered the first stage of the 4 stages of addiction. Particularly among young people, experimentation is often accepted or even encouraged, but it is important to remember that experimentation isn’t always harmless. Particularly if teens exhibit certain risk factors for addiction, experimentation can be an easy pathway to a long future of substance use disorders.

Experimentation among adults can occur when changing or expanding social groups, or getting a new job with a new work culture that might accept or encourage drug use. Regardless of when and why you start experimentation, every case must be considered on an individual basis. For example, if drugs are introduced to an individual at a time when they are particularly vulnerable, there is a greater chance drug use will continue and develop into a serious issue. Or if experimental drug use results in positive outcomes i.e. social acceptance, relief from stress, etc. This positive reinforcement could easily push the person into further stages of drug abuse.

Stage 2: Social or Regular Use

Stage two of the stages of addiction represents somewhat of a fork in the road for a lot of people. While it is true that some people will be able to engage in the regular use of drugs without developing a dependence, the risk for substance abuse greatly increases during this stage. With regular use also comes a subsequent increase in the likelihood of participating in high-risk behaviours like driving while under the influence, emotional volatility, or depression.

It is very important during this stage to keep an eye out for changes in mood and behaviour, shifts in priorities, or early physical symptoms of addiction. You might sense a withdrawal from family and friends, problems with limiting the amount of drugs being used (it’s never just one) or witness unsuccessful interventions by friends or family. People during this stage may develop personal concerns or feelings of shame for their behaviour, but generally, continue to justify it or make excuses.

Stage 3: Risky Use/Abuse

The transition between stages 2 and 3 might occur quite quickly and be difficult to detect in yourself or your loved one. It is during this stage that the drug user begins to prioritise drug use over other facets of their life and becomes unaware or unafraid of the consequences of their behaviour. The warning signs associated with Stage 3 addiction are: physical or psychological cravings and depression/irritability or fatigue if the drug can not be accessed.

Positive reinforcement experienced in stages 1 and 2 can propel a person into stage 3. On a biological level, repeated exposure to a substance causes some people to develop hyper sensitisation – meaning that the individual will experience greater pleasure the next time they try the substance. Hypersensitisation leads to something incentive salience which means that the drug has now become a reward for the body and the body will start to want the drug at greater intensity and therefore repeatedly take the drug. The biological need for the drug combined with the psychological craving easily paves the way for addiction and full dependency to take over during Stage 4.

Stage 4: Drug Addiction and Chemical Dependencies

Addiction and chemical dependencies is the final stage of drug addiction. Characteristics of these stages include continued use of drugs regardless of the negative consequences, severed impacts to physical and mental health, poor performance at work or job loss, or engaging in criminal activity. Personal relationships are jeopardised or completely lost as a result of drug use. If the addict progresses beyond stage four and enters recovery, it usually is a result of reaching a rock bottom- arrest or detention, near death experience, loss of loved one, etc. before they choose to seek addiction treatment.

During stage four, the addict has gotten to a point that they would have never previously imagined when they began with experimentation. If they are capable of identifying their problem, they are rarely willing or able to take actions towards correcting it. During Stage 4 peer and family support is important, but is also a serious emotional strain and sometimes even an impossibility.

Holistic Treatment for Drug Addiction at The Dawn Rehab Thailand

Holistic Treatment for Drug Addiction

The disease of addiction is both progressive and terminal, but thankfully, it is also treatable. In terms of treating drug addiction, there are many options available, but it is important to consider a programme that offers a holistic approach and facilities and staff that are able to address co-occurring disorders such as alcohol abuse and mental illness. The fact that not everyone who experiments with drugs will develop addictions implies that there are many other factors that must be considered when determining why and how an addiction developed and in order for treatment to be effective, these factors must also be addressed.

It is also important to acknowledge that addiction does not just affect the addict themselves, but everyone involved in their lives. Family members and other loved ones often need to seek their own help in coping with the stress of addiction, broken relationships, and issues of codependency.

The Dawn Rehab Thailand is a premier drug and alcohol addiction treatment centre located in Chiang Mai, Thailand. We offer private accommodation and an effective, affordable treatment programme to help move you from stages of addiction into the stages of addiction recovery. For more information on holistic drug addiction treatment options, please don’t hesitate to contact us today.

Q: What are the 4 stages of addiction?

A: There are many factors that may contribute to drug addiction, including genetic and environmental influences, socio-economic status, personal behavioural patterns etc. However, most professionals within the field of addiction have agreed that there are 4 stages of drug addiction: experimentation, regular use, high-risk use, and addiction or dependency.

About the Author

John A. Smith is a Senior Psychotherapist at The Dawn and an internationally accredited Addiction Treatment Professional (ISSUP), Certified Life and NLP Coach. He is highly experienced in working with young adults and utilises a range of evidence-based therapies, including SMART Recovery, to help his clients achieve their goals.