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The Three Stages of Drug Addiction

Addiction either happens rapidly or over the course of weeks, months or years. People who use drugs to cope – with stress, social anxiety or emotional problems – may progress quickly from substance use to addiction. Some drugs are so addictive it only takes a few hits before a person craves them uncontrollably.

How Addictions Develop

No one sets out to develop an addiction. A complicated mix of genetics and environmental factors determine if one person is at greater risk for addiction than another. Researchers know some people’s brains react differently to certain substances. For example, some people have a gene variant that protects against cocaine addiction, because it reduces the amount of dopamine (a neurotransmitter that produces feelings of pleasure) released by cocaine.

Other people, however, are more susceptible to drugs.

Adolescents, for example, have developing brains that still struggle with inhibiting impulses and making good decisions. That’s why young people are more likely to develop an addiction, because they may not have a strong enough ability to say no to taking more drugs or drinking more alcohol.[1]

A person develops an addiction for a variety of reasons. He may drink alcohol or take drugs as a way to make a party more fun or feel more comfortable talking to strangers. He may use drugs to improve his performance at school or build muscles faster. Peer pressure also plays a major role as friends encourage everyone involved to join in.[2]

On a broad level, addiction is compulsive; drug-seeking behavior that continues even when negative consequences overtake a person’s life. Family and friends recognize severe addictions, because a person’s life is out of control. An addiction in its beginning stage may be harder to spot. Since a mild addiction is easier to treat, it’s important to step in as soon as possible.If in doubt, turn to a licensed professional to make the most accurate diagnosis.2

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First Stage: Preoccupation/Anticipation

sketch of a number oneConstant cravings for a drug are the first sign addiction is taking hold.An overwhelming urge to use the drug of choice preoccupies the user despite other events, responsibilities or relationships in her life.

Irritability, agitation, fatigue, depression and difficulty concentrating are warning signs thoughts and behavior are out of balance.[3]

Second Stage: Binge/Intoxication

sketch of number twoAs a person uses a substance more frequently, larger amounts are needed to experience the same high. To increase the high, excessive indulgence of the drug (bingeing) pushes the effects of intoxication to dangerous levels. Prolonged exposure results in desensitization, which increases the risk of overdose as the user tries to experience the initial euphoria of using the drug for the first time.

Warning signs of the second stage include the following:

  • Missing days at work or school or showing up late because of recovering from a drug or alcohol binge
  • Continued use in spite of threats of getting fired or expelled
  • Schedulingentire day around obtaining, using or recovering from drug use
  • Choosing to attend events or spend time with friends only if drugs or alcohol will be available
  • Unexplained personality changes
  • Sudden need for money
  • Excessive need for privacy
  • Possession of drug paraphernalia

A person may show a few warning signs of addiction, such as occasionally missing work, without having a serious problem. However, when missed days continue and a person’s behavior changes, it’s likely an addiction is severe[4].

Third Stage: Withdrawal/Negative Affect

sketch of number threeIn addition to the way addiction takes over a person’s life, substances also change a person’s brain affecting his moods and behavior. When he stops taking the drug or drinking alcohol, he may experience withdrawal symptoms.

Symptoms differ depending on the substance, but may include the following:

  • Agitation, anxiety, panic
  • Insomnia, depression, paranoid thinking
  • Fatigue, muscle pain, feeling shaky
  • Headaches, dizziness, seizures
  • Nausea, vomiting, chills, cramps
  • Shakes, sweats, tremors
  • Psychotic reactions
At this stage, the only motivation in a user’s life is to avoid the agonizing symptoms of withdrawal.

All other conventional activities cease to have meaning beyond finding and continuing to use his chosen substances. Friends and loved ones may notice lost interest in family or social activities, hobbies or even personal appearance. Risky behavior (stealing, sharing needles, unsafe sex), changes in eating habits, unexplained weight change, difficulty paying attention, violent or bizarre outbursts, even paranoia are all indications of the destructive cycle playing out.[5]

Treating Addiction at The Canyon

When it’s clear you or a loved one need addiction treatment, there are many recovery options available. The most effective addiction treatments give a person the ability to stop using drugs on his own terms. This highly individual process works by going through talk therapy. Facilities that offer evidence-based therapies, such as The Canyon, give patients the best outcomes.

If you have questions about the stages of drug addiction or would like to schedule an appointment to speak with one of our admissions counselors, call us today at 424-387-3118. All calls are private and confidential.

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[1] Harvard Mental Health Letter. (2004). The Addicted Brain. Retrieved Feb. 13, 2017 from http://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/the_addicted_brain.

[2] National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2014). What is Drug Addiction? Drugs, Brains, and Behavior: The Science of Addiction. Retrieved Feb. 13, 2017 from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugs-brains-behavior-science-addiction/drug-abuse-addiction.

[3]Koob, G. F., & Volkow, N. D. (2010). Neurocircuitry of Addiction. Neuropsychopharmacology. Retrieved Feb. 13, 2017 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2805560/.

[4] Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2015). Substance Use Disorders. Retrieved Feb. 13, 2017 from https://www.samhsa.gov/disorders/substance-use.

[5] Martin, Laura. (2016). Substance use disorder. Medline Plus. Retrieved Feb. 13, 2017 from https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/001522.htm.