How Does Addiction Progress?

Addiction is a problem that happens over time, not overnight. It’s important to recognize the progression of addiction as it can encourage you to step in and help a friend or family member sooner than later.

While each person is unique, the path to addiction is largely the same. Usually, people start out experimenting with drugs. Their motivations for experimenting may differ. Some people want to feel more relaxed around friends. Others want to escape from their emotions. Whatever the underlying motivations may be, the intent for experimenting is usually innocent.

The more a person uses drugs and alcohol, the more likely they are to become addicted. Let’s take a look at the stages of addiction and how people progress through them.


Though experimentation is usually thought to be a teenage problem, it can occur at any age. Teens are more likely to experiment because they are testing the waters and naturally curious about the world. But anyone of any age can become curious about drugs and begin experimenting with them.

Sometimes, people are introduced by a friend. That friend may tell them that drugs or alcohol can help them feel more comfortable in social situations or help them deal with their problems. If the person does decide to experiment, this stage usually involves occasional use. The person probably would never think that addiction could be possible.

However, every time a person uses drugs, they are doing damage to their body. They are also putting themselves at risk for addiction.

Regular Use

In this stage, a person begins using drugs or alcohol on a regular basis. They don’t need the drug to function at this point, but this doesn’t mean that a problem isn’t developing. In fact, by regularly using drugs or alcohol, the person is training their brain to develop a dependency.

If you were to try and approach a person in this stage, they would probably deny that they have a problem. This is because they are still in control, and there are probably no consequences yet. They can maintain a job, a family and a nice home. Instead, they use drugs or alcohol to unwind or relieve negative feelings.

Substance Abuse

This is the stage when a drug or alcohol problem forms. It can manifest in different ways. For example, a person abusing alcohol may binge drink or drink heavily over a period of time. A person with a cocaine addiction may build up a tolerance and need more and more of the drug to get the same effect. Someone who is addicted to painkillers may turn to street heroin to get a cheaper and easier fix.

Substance abuse is a clear indication that a person has a problem with drugs or alcohol. If you can get a person help at this stage, please do.


A full-blown addiction is the last stage. This is the point where a person is completely overtaken by their addiction and can no longer function without drugs or alcohol. They are no longer in control, and they are willing to do whatever it takes to get what they need.

People in this stage are very hard to reason with because they are completely infatuated with their drug. Anyone who tries to stand in the way of it can be viewed as a threat. Unless a person in this stage gets help, they likely cannot quit on their own.


Everyone is different. Some people progress quickly through these stages while others take longer. What’s important to realize is that a person does not have to be fully addicted to getting help. It’s easier to treat someone who doesn’t have a full-blown addiction because they are more in control, have suffered fewer consequences and haven’t done as much damage to their body. Also, with all the drug and alcohol treatment options available (IOPs, day programs, residential programs, 12-step groups) there is support for everyone.


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