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Understanding the 4 Stages of Drug Addiction

Developing a drug addiction is not something that occurs in one day. There is a process involved in becoming addicted. Within this process, there are four stages. You may be wondering, “Am I addicted to drugs?” or perhaps, “What stage am I in?” Whatever your questions may be, understanding the four stages of drug addiction is an essential part of recovery.

What Is Drug Addiction?

Before going into the stages involved in drug addiction, you must first understand what an addiction consists of. According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), “The word “addiction” is often used to refer to any behaviour that is out of control.” They outline the four C’s to help determine the presence of addiction:

  • Craving
  • Loss of control over use
  • Compulsion to use
  • Using drugs despite consequences

Addiction is considered a brain disorder due to the involvement of functional changes in an individual’s brain circuits. These brain circuits are part of the reward, stress, and self-control processes. Changes such as these may last a long time, even after the individual has stopped the use of drugs. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), roughly 21% of the population (six million people) meet the criteria for addiction.

Stage 1: Experimentation

There are many reasons why a person might try drugs for the first time. It may be due to peer pressure, stresses in life, or just attempting to have “fun.” When trying drugs initially, the individual doesn’t get addicted the first time or even the second time. Many people are actually able to walk away without developing an addiction at all.

However, this isn’t the case for all people. For many, the first few times are seemingly innocent. The individual may play it off as a one-time deal, while in reality, the drug is opening the door to the next stage of regular use.

Stage 2: Regular Use

This stage can happen in one of two ways. The individual may engage in social drug use on a regular occurrence, which can ultimately lead to dependency and, later, abuse. Alternatively, the individual might begin regular use independently, likely as a means to cope with negative moods, thoughts, or pain.

While some people are still able to walk away from this stage without developing an addiction, most people become dependent during this stage. The outcome of this pattern is the drug being needed to get through each day. Becoming dependent results in a higher risk for drug abuse which leads to the third stage of high-risk use.

Stage 3: High-Risk Use

During this stage, the individual starts to prioritize drugs over everything else. The drug affects their daily life. As a result, responsibilities and relationships begin to suffer. Regular use increases and the individual starts to lose control.

Due to the nature of drugs changing the cells in the brain, the brain will slowly stop releasing neurotransmitters that are needed to regulate moods and other bodily functions. Alternatively, the brain will allow the drug to take control of this process. Over time, the individual’s body develops a tolerance to the drug, thus resulting in higher amounts on an even more frequent schedule being needed.

The requirement of more frequent use leads to the individual taking more risks. These may include driving while under the influence and making poor decisions they wouldn’t normally make when sober. This brings the user into the final stage of addiction.

Stage 4: Addiction

At this point, dependency has evolved into a full-on addiction. Both the individual’s brain and body require the drug in order to function as they should. The individual may even develop a condition called anhedonia, which is the reduced ability to experience pleasure. This is due to the physical changes discussed in stage three.

While dependency and addiction are two different things, dependency often goes hand-in-hand with addiction. Addiction is a chronic physical and severe emotional dependency on a drug or other substance. The individual engages in drug use regularly with complete disregard for any physical harm or consequences that result from it. Physical symptoms from not receiving drugs on time include shakes, sweats, tremors, and other frantic behaviour.

Once addicted, the individual’s personal life and professional life also suffer greatly. Their relationships are often lost due to prioritizing drugs over family and friends. Their professional life is either in jeopardy, or they have already been terminated.

Additionally, individuals are at high risk for acquiring a criminal record, and personal hygiene and basic needs are often skipped over as well. The individual’s thoughts are consumed by the drug, and there is no question as to whether or not they are addicted at this point. There is a way out, however, and that is by seeking treatment.

Treatment for Drug Addiction

At this point, you may be asking yourself if you can be treated. The answer is an absolute yes. Addiction is a treatable disorder where the goal and end result is to live a life free of drugs and free of your addiction. This goal is a state of living known as recovery.

The best method of treatment to date is joining a rehabilitation program. There are multiple options available in terms of programs. The first thing you will want to do is find a facility that cares and shares your goal of recovery.


Whatever stage of drug addiction you may be in, it is imperative that you know it is not too late. You are in control of your future, and you have the choice today, right now, to say, “Enough is enough,” and take control of your life back. At BeWell, your future not only matters to you, but it matters to us too. Your success is our priority, and we want to help you take the reins back into your hands. Our team will be with you every step of the way, guiding you through the steps of recovery and into a future without drug addiction. Call us today at (647) 715-3900 and let BeWell be there for you.

About the Author

Katlyn Morrison

Registered Psychotherapist
Book an Appointment Katlyn is a Registered Psychotherapist with 10 years of experience in the field of mental health and addiction. Katlyn’s experience has allowed her to specialize in working with individuals impacted by substance use, depression, anxiety, trauma, personality disorders, stress, and grief and loss. She integrates a variety of modalities into her practice including Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), Motivational Interviewing (MI) and Attachment and Trauma Focused Therapy.