Published On: Thu, Dec 5th, 2019

The 5 Stages of Addiction: A psychological and behavioral roadmap

In the world we live in, it would be very inaccurate for us to say that we know the exact number of people battling drug addiction. In fact, many times, we assume the statuses of drug users wrongly by calling them addicts, when, in fact, they are just at the tolerance stage. As a matter of fact, in the U.S., for instance, experts believe the figure to be somewhere around 24 million addicts, and that’s if you narrow the focus down to alcohol, opioids, and other drugs, including marijuana, cocaine, and methamphetamines. Sounds like that is just a fraction of the number you were expecting to see, right? I’m afraid so! So does that mean we’ve wrongly labeled and stigmatized many people by calling them, addicts? Yes, and I’m afraid we’re all guilty of that. Not that we’re to be blamed though, after all, not many of us can recognize the signs of drug addiction, let alone understand the stages of addiction. So what exactly are the signs someone is addicted? Some may quip. Well, that’s what you’re about to find out within the context of this post. We will provide a simplified answer to this question by delving first into the different stages of addiction.

needle pills addiction

photo/ Arek Socha

The five stages of addiction

First Use

The very first stage of drug addiction starts with the process of first use. And by first use, we mean experimentation with drugs or alcohol. It is the stage where an individual begins trying substances – most likely in small quantities. This stage of addiction could also encompass the process of someone taking a medication that has been prescribed to them by their doctor or physician. However, this stage could be as a result of circumstance, peer pressure, or adventure. But regardless of what the motives are, it is important to note that this is the stage where the user learns how the substance makes them feel. 

Continued use

The second stage of addiction is called the “continued use stage.” In the case of someone taking a medication based on prescription, this stage could ensue based on the requirement of the physician. But in the case of someone experimenting, it is obvious that the user enjoyed how the substance made them feel at the first use stage, and now they want more. In this stage, users are likely to notice that they’re not bouncing back as quickly after getting “high,” unlike what they experienced in the first use stage. The reason for this is that the brain is taking longer to repair itself and return to normalcy.

Tolerance level

A drug user arrives at the tolerance level stage after a period of continued use. The number of days, months, or years between the continued use stage and the tolerance level depends solely on the individual in question and the type of drug under consideration. Unfortunately, though, this stage of drug addiction is the first warning sign that the user is nearing complete addiction. In simple terms, the tolerance level implies that both the brain have adjusted perfectly to the effects of the substance and now need multiple doses to feel the effects again. To further understand this concept, let’s take a look at this common scenario that happens every day around us: When a person starts taking a certain pain-relieving pill for the purpose of painkilling, a point will be reached where the same drug will no longer be enough to provide the user the soothing relief they desire. This point is the tolerance level.


Almost close to addiction is the dependence stage. This is the stage whereby an individual will become physically ill when they are not able to get their hands on the said drugs – perhaps even exhibiting some serious withdrawal symptoms. The simple logic behind this stage of addiction is that the body and brain of the user have grown so accustomed to the substance that they can no longer function well without it. Users at this stage of addiction often experience flu-like withdrawal symptoms, such as opiates, sweats, or shakiness. The symptoms immediately disappear once the user is able to get a hold of their precious substance. This stage is the last sign that addiction is taking hold, and without an instant action, the user might fall into the ultimate stage of addiction – which is addiction proper. 


With the last stage, addiction, individuals find it nearly impossible to stop misusing drugs or alcohol, even when they no longer enjoy it or their behavior has caused serious life problems. They might last for periods of time where they don’t use drugs or alcohol but are unable to stop themselves just when things seemed to be going well. On the flip side, a person in the shackles of addiction who’s lost everything might be in total denial, unwilling or unable to face the disease. 

Author: Uday Tank

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