Calgary Dream Centre
4510 Macleod Trail SW Calgary AB T2G 0A4 (403) 243-5598

The 5 Stages of Addiction

A man with a sad expression sitting in a bar and holding a glass of alcohol

Addiction isn’t a one-time event; it’s a journey that unfolds through various stages. Each person’s path with addiction is unique, with the duration and intensity of each stage differing from one individual to another. Recognizing and understanding these stages can be instrumental in breaking the cycle and seeking help, whether for yourself or a loved one.

Addiction typically progresses through 5 distinct stages, each characterized by specific behaviours, emotions, and physical changes: 

1) Initial use

2) Abuse

3) Tolerance and dependence

4) Addiction

5) Relapse

Addiction & the Brain

Scientific research tells us that addiction is a chronic brain disease with the potential for recurrence and recovery. As someone keeps using substances, their brain undergoes significant changes that make it harder to control their consumption.

Critical areas of the brain play a significant role in addiction. When these parts get disrupted, it can lead to cravings, a reduced ability to feel pleasure, and trouble making decisions and controlling impulses. Even after someone stops using substances, these brain changes stick around, showing just how persistent addiction can be.

Adolescence is an especially vulnerable time for substance use and addiction. Their developing brains are more sensitive to the effects of substances like alcohol and marijuana. These substances mess with the brain’s reward system, creating a pleasurable feeling that makes people want to use them repeatedly despite the risks involved.

What Is the Addiction Cycle?

The cycle of addiction is a pattern driven by our brain’s reward system. It usually starts with trying a substance out of curiosity or for fun. Over time, you might need more of it to get the same effect. Soon enough, you’re using regularly and feeling like you can’t function without it.

When dependence sets in, quitting can bring on unpleasant withdrawal symptoms, so you end up going back to the substance to feel better. It becomes a tough cycle to break.

On top of that, certain situations or feelings—like going out with friends or dealing with stress—can trigger intense cravings for the substance. These triggers mix with our internal desires, making it even harder to stop using.

What’s more, repeated use changes our brain chemistry, making us crave more of the substance to feel good. It becomes a relentless cycle of seeking highs and avoiding lows.

An infographic listing the 5 stages of addiction.

Stage 1: Experimentation

Experimentation marks the first exposure to addictive substances or behaviours. It’s the initial, often voluntary, encounter driven by curiosity, peer pressure, or stress relief. Despite the seemingly innocent intention behind it, this stage is critical as it can lay the foundation for addiction.

Risk factors like family history, social environment, and psychological disposition can impact your likelihood of moving past experimentation. Warning signs, such as a growing preoccupation with the substance or activity, indicate that experimentation may evolve into a more habitual pattern.

Stage 2: Regular Use

As a person begins using the substance or engaging in the behaviour more consistently, they transition into the regular use stage. Regular use doesn’t necessarily imply daily use, but the predictable pattern is hard to miss.

In this stage, both physical and psychological effects may emerge, alongside the risks and consequences of ongoing use. Relationships may begin to strain, and there could be a decline in performance at school or work.

Stage 3: Risky Use

At this juncture, the frequency and quantity of use escalate, and so does the disregard for the harm it causes. The user starts to exhibit increased tolerance and dependence on the substance or behaviour, seeking it out despite its clear negative impacts.

Risky use is a beacon for intervention as the individual’s actions start to take a toll on their relationships and responsibilities, often leading to legal issues, financial problems, and significant health risks.

Stage 4: Dependence

When dependence sets in, addiction is close. A key feature of this stage is experiencing withdrawal symptoms, where the body and mind start craving the substance or behaviour to feel “normal.”

At this point, the individual may struggle to control their usage and find themselves making poor decisions. Their addiction starts taking precedence over almost everything else in life, becoming the main focus of their thoughts and actions.

Stage 5: Addiction & Recovery or Relapse

Once someone reaches this final stage, their addiction is usually quite evident. However, defining addiction is tricky—it’s a chronic, recurring condition that requires comprehensive treatment and support.

Recognizing this condition is the first step towards seeking the right help. Many treatment options are available, including therapy, residential programs, support groups, and medication. Recovery is a personalized journey, and maintaining sobriety requires continuous commitment and recognition that relapse can be part of the process—but it doesn’t mean failure.

A psychologist giving advice to a person struggling with addiction

Find Help at the Calgary Dream Centre

Recovery is always possible, and there is hope at every stage of addiction; it just requires recognizing the signs to break the cycle.

If you or someone you know is navigating this journey, remember you’re not alone. Our team at the Calgary Dream Centre is dedicated to supporting you or your loved one on the path to recovery.

Whether you’re in the midst of addiction or taking your first steps toward recovery, we’re here to provide guidance and support every step of the way. Reach out to us today for assistance.

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  • Written by Craig Hill

    Craig Hill has been involved with the Calgary Dream Centre (CDC) since its inception. Starting with trips to the LA Dream Centre where seeds were planted in him that were never forgotten. After years of working in business, real estate, and church ministry, Craig returned to the CDC to step in as the CEO. Craig has a deep appreciation for the life change that happens here, the incredible team, and seeing the redemptive work that God is doing. Outside of work, Craig is a family man who loves nothing more than being with his wife and kids at the lake.

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    The Calgary Dream Centre acknowledges with humble gratitude that our organization is located on the traditional territories of the Blackfoot Confederacy (Siksika, Kainai, Piikani), the Tsuut’ina, the Iyarhe Nakoda Nations, the Otipemisiwak Métis Government of the Métis Nation within Alberta District 6, and all people who make their homes in the Treaty 7 region of Southern Alberta.