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6 Stages of Addiction: From Experimentation to Relapse

Addiction is a complex and chronic condition characterized by the compulsive use of a substance or engagement in a behavior despite adverse consequences. The phases of addiction follow a gradual, step-by-step process, including experimentation, drug abuse, drug tolerance or physical dependence, active drug addiction, ongoing recovery, and sometimes, relapse.

Addiction is not a one-size-fits-all, as these different phases can spring up different levels of severity in different people. This can be due to your mode or method of usage, genetics, and other factors. 

Experimenting with drugs is the first category of addiction which starts by simply using harmful substances occasionally to experience a level of high. Some users may never progress beyond this state. As more frequent and excessive abuse occurs, the consequences to personal health are more severe. At this stage of drug abuse, addicts are likely to develop physical and mental dependence, which indicates the body or brain is not responding to the medication as it used to, requiring more doses to achieve the same euphoric feeling and effects. Depending on the type of substance being abused, tolerance can occur faster or slower but still ultimately resulting in addiction which is categorized by continued use despite the consequences. 

Recovery is possible with the help of treatment that addresses all of the symptoms of the underlying addiction. Relapse occurs when a person stops maintaining their goal of reducing or avoiding the use of alcohol or other drugs and returns to their previous addiction state. The stages of addiction include:

  1. drug experimentation
  2. drug abuse
  3. drug tolerance and dependence
  4. drug addiction
  5. Recovery
  6. Relapse
Categories Of Addiction Cycle

1. What is Drug Experimentation?

Drug experimentation is the initial phase in the progression toward active drug addiction. It involves trying a substance, often out of curiosity or peer influence, with the primary goal of experiencing its numbing or euphoric effects. Drug experimentation can be a one-time occurrence or involve sporadic use without necessarily developing an addiction.

Although experimenting with drugs doesn’t mean you’ll become addicted, it often opens the door to other levels in the drug addiction cycle, like drug abuse, tolerance, and dependence, which can then lead to full-blown drug addiction.

While drug experimentation is a form of drug abuse since many drug users only take those drugs for illicit reasons, it differs from drug abuse in the context and journey to addiction. For example, a teenager might be curious to experiment with Xanax at a party as a one-time thing just because they see their friends using it. 

On the other hand, abusing drugs is a further step down the path to addiction as it involves deliberate and regular use of the substance for the purpose of experiencing the effects.

Why Do People Experiment With Drugs?

People experiment with drugs for several reasons: curiosity, peer pressure, social and recreational experience, stress relief, risk-taking and sensation-seeking, cultural norms, and media or pop culture.

Some individuals may experiment with drugs for self-exploration. They may want to experience the altered states of consciousness and understand their limits. For some people, a family history of substance use or addiction may increase their chance of using drugs and other substances like alcohol and mushrooms.

The Phases Of Addiction: From Experimentation To Relapse

2. What is Drug Abuse?

Drug abuse refers to the harmful or hazardous use of psychoactive substances, including legal and illegal drugs. In the drug abuse milestone of the addiction journey, individuals engage in hazardous consumption of substances, leading to adverse effects on both mental and physical well-being, social relationships, or overall quality of life.

Drug abusers have progressed past the stage of experimentation and are at heightened risk of developing physical tolerance and full-blown addiction. This stage is distinct from tolerance and dependence, as full tolerance and physical reliance have not yet manifested. For instance, problematic drinking resulting in blackouts or monthly excessive cocaine use are indicative behaviors.

People who abuse drugs exhibit behaviors like:

  1. Using drugs in larger amounts or for longer periods than intended
  2. Craving or a strong desire to use drugs
  3. Continued drug use despite knowing it causes or worsens a physical, social, or psychological problem
  4. Taking drugs to relieve or avoid withdrawal symptoms
  5. Increasing doses of the drug over time

Drug abuse is different from active drug addiction. While both terms are related, they’re two distinct concepts, each representing a different stage or level of drug involvement. 

Drug abuse refers to a pattern of behaviors where an individual uses drugs in a way that leads to negative consequences, but it may not necessarily indicate a full-blown addiction. On the other hand, drug addiction represents a more severe and chronic condition. It is characterized by compulsive and uncontrollable use of drugs, often to the detriment of your health, relationships, and overall well-being.

What Are The Symptoms Of Drug Abuse?

The symptoms of drug abuse can vary depending on the specific drug, frequency and amount of use, as well as individual factors like genetics. These symptoms can range from physical to behavioral, psychological, social, and emotional. The common sign amongst all forms of drug and alcohol abuse is using the substances in a risky way and overusing substances in a way that is more than just experimentation. It’s important to understand the intent behind drug abuse. Drug abusers are looking to change the way they feel and use increasing amounts of drugs or alcohol and are past the stage of experimentation.

Common signs of drug abuse are listed below:

Risky Behavior

One of the first signs of drug abuse is engaging in risky behaviors while under the influence. This may include driving, operating heavy machinery, or participating in unsafe sexual activities. Unlike experimentation, where usage might be controlled and less frequent, risky abuse often occurs more consistently but has still not progressed to physical dependence.


Overuse of a substance is another telling symptom of drug abuse. This entails consuming larger amounts of the drug than initially intended or using the drug for extended periods. Experimentation typically involves a ‘trial’ phase, but abuse transcends this by making the drug a regular or necessary part of one’s routine.

Blacking Out

Experiencing blackouts or memory lapses is a severe symptom of drug abuse. This is rarely, if ever, an outcome of mere experimentation. Blacking out can lead to dangerous situations and is a sign that drug use has escalated to a problematic level.

Emergency Room Visits

Repeated visits to the emergency room due to drug-related complications are a glaring red flag for drug abuse. Whether it’s an overdose, an accident while under the influence, or another health crisis, frequent ER trips highlight the urgency to address the drug abuse issue.

Psychological Changes

Major shifts in mood, behavior, or psychological well-being may indicate drug abuse. This could manifest as increased anxiety, depression, or irritability. While experimentation might not significantly impact mental health, abuse often does, affecting not only the individual but also their relationships with others.

Financial Strain

Drug abuse can lead to financial difficulties, as the need to purchase the substance becomes a priority. This is generally not the case with experimentation, where the financial impact is minimal.

Neglected Responsibilities

If work, school, or home duties are consistently ignored or poorly performed due to drug use, this is a symptom of abuse. Unlike experimentation, the neglect of responsibilities shows that drug use has escalated to a disruptive level.

3. What Is Drug Tolerance?

Drug tolerance is one of the stages in the cycle of drug addiction that refers to a physiological and psychological adaptation that occurs when your response to a drug diminishes with repeated use. In other words, as you continue to use a drug over time, you may require higher doses to achieve the same effects you initially experienced with a lower amount. 

Tolerance can develop with various types of drugs, including prescription medications, illicit substances, and even certain legal drugs like alcohol and nicotine, leading to active drug addiction.

Drug tolerance should not be mistaken for addiction or drug abuse, as these are different stages in the drug addiction journey. Drug tolerance is the resistance of the body to the effects of drugs. It is the result of drug abuse and one of the symptoms of full-blown addiction.

The physiological aspect of drug tolerance refers to the body’s physical response to a drug. It often involves changes in the body’s metabolic processes or the functioning of receptors targeted by the drug. As a result, the body becomes less responsive to the drug’s effects, leading to the need for higher doses to achieve the desired outcome. For example, opioid tolerance can develop, requiring individuals to take increasingly larger doses to alleviate pain.

The psychological aspect of drug tolerance is the adaptation of mental and behavioral responses to a drug after repeated use. Unlike physiological tolerance, which involves changes in the body’s physical processes, psychological tolerance primarily involves changes in perception, subjective experiences, and your psychological response to the drug.

What Is Ongoing Recovery?

4. What Is Active Drug Addiction?

Active drug addiction refers to the ongoing and current state of addiction where an individual is actively using drugs or engaging in drug-seeking behaviors despite the negative consequences they experience. It implies that the person is actively consuming a substance (such as alcohol, opioids, cocaine, methamphetamine, etc.) in a way that harms their physical health, mental well-being, and overall quality of life.

Unlike drug abuse, where drug users consume prescription medications for the purpose of achieving euphoria without necessarily experiencing the damaging effects of addiction, active drug addiction is a critical stage in the addiction cycle and can have severe consequences. Its key characteristics can range from regular substance use to cravings and dependence, severe effects, loss of control, risky behavior, tolerance, social isolation, physical and mental health decline, etc.

Active drug addiction is a prevalent issue in the U.S., with more than 21 million people aged 12 or older actively addicted to drug use in 2020, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH).

What Are The Symptoms Of Active Drug Addiction?

What Are The Symptoms Of Active Drug Addiction?

The symptoms of active drug addiction can vary depending on the type of drug(s) being used and the severity of the addiction. Common symptoms of active drug addiction include the following:

  1. cravings
  2. compulsive drug use
  3. tolerance
  4. withdrawal symptoms
  5. neglecting responsibilities
  6. loss of interest
  7. social isolation
  8. secrecy and deception
  9. financial problems
  10. health issues
  11. risk-taking behaviors
  12. neglect of self-care
  13. relationship strain
  14. loss of control
  15. crises and legal issues
  16. physical signs

These symptoms of active drug addiction vary from person to person and depend on the specific drug(s) being used. This means that not everyone addicted to drugs will experience all these symptoms. Additionally, the severity of addiction can range from mild to severe, with some people experiencing similar consequences but with more profound effects and strain on the quality of life. 

5. What Is Ongoing Recovery And Sobriety?

Ongoing recovery from active drug addiction refers to the process and commitment to maintaining a healthy, substance-free lifestyle after overcoming your addiction. It encompasses the period following initial treatment and sobriety efforts and extends throughout your life.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), Recovery is a process of change through which people improve their health and wellness, live self-directed lives, and strive to reach their full potential.

Ongoing recovery from active drug addiction involves several vital aspects, such as sobriety maintenance, coping strategies, physical and mental health well-being, lifestyle changes, continued learning, relapse prevention, support systems, etc.

What Are The Signs And Symptoms Of Ongoing Sobriety and Recovery?

The signs and symptoms of ongoing sobriety include:

  • abstinence
  • improved physical health
  • stable mental health
  • regular engagement in supportive activities
  • building healthy relationships
  • employment and education
  • positive lifestyle changes
  • enhanced self-esteem
  • stress management
  • relapse prevention
  • community involvement
  • financial stability
  • hope and optimism

Remember that recovery is a highly individualized process. Achieving and maintaining sobriety is a significant accomplishment, and different people may experience these signs and symptoms to varying degrees and at different stages of their recovery and sobriety from active drug addiction.

6. What Is Relapse?

Relapse means the return to drug or alcohol use after a period of abstinence or sobriety. It is common in recovery from active drug addiction and is often seen as a setback rather than a failure. Although relapse is more common in the early stages of recovery, it can happen at any stage and is a complex and multifaceted phenomenon.

Although the symptoms of relapse are similar to the symptoms of active drug addiction, these two stages of addiction are completely different. Drug addiction relapse only happens after an individual has sought treatment and is already recovering from the addiction, while active drug addiction is the result of all the earlier stages, including experimentation, drug abuse, and tolerance.

According to Research by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, relapse rates for drug and alcohol addiction typically range from 40% to 60% or even higher. It is noteworthy that relapse rates can vary depending on the specific substance. For example, substances with severe withdrawal symptoms, like opioids or alcohol, may have higher relapse rates.

When Does Someone Start Relapsing?

People often start to relapse in the early stages of treatment and recovery from active drug addiction. However, It’s essential to understand that relapse doesn’t have a fixed timeline and can happen anytime.

A research paper published by Indian J Psychiatry in February 2018, 60(Suppl 4): S473–S478, explains that aside from the timelines, some people may begin to relapse due to cognitive factors or when they experience major life stressors, become complacent about treatment, or become too confident in their ability to stay sober. 

Sometimes, people may relapse when faced with social and emotional triggers and don’t get the support they need.

What Are The Early Warning Signs of Relapse?

The early warning signs of relapse can range from behavioral, psychological, emotional, and physical characteristics. They can include the following:

  • increased cravings
  • isolation and social withdrawal
  • negative emotional changes
  • loss of interest
  • decreased self-care
  • dishonesty
  • change in routine
  • romanticizing drug use
  • loss of accountability
  • reduced support seeking
  • return to enabling or high-risk environments
  • increased impulsivity

These signs may not be present in everyone who’s beginning to relapse, but they are familiar cues to look out for. It is essential to be self-aware and vigilant while recovering from active drug addiction.

What Is The Difference Between A Slip-Up And A Full-Blown Relapse?

The difference between a slip-up and a full-blown relapse is that with a slip-up, the individual has not yet developed a tolerance or physical dependence to the drug and can quickly take active steps to discontinue drug use. Slip-ups are usually brief and have limited consequences, making it easier to retrace your steps.

On the other hand, a full-blown relapse results in the resumption of active addiction behaviors, continued drug abuse, lack of awareness and denial, more severe consequences, and difficulty regaining sobriety.

Remember that relapse is not failure. It is merely a setback, and with the right help, you can maintain a wholesome recovery.

When Does A Relapse Stop And Active Addiction Start?

Relapse stops, and active drug addiction resumes lies in the period of recovery before the relapse, the duration of the relapse, and other factors like your personal circumstances, behaviors, and choices. This will not be the same for everyone. 

Some people may return to active drug addiction after only a few days of relapse, while it can take some longer than that. There is no definite point where a relapse becomes active drug addiction. If you’re concerned about relapsing, quickly ask your health professional for help.

Treatment To Stop The Addiction Cycle

At What Points in the Addiction Cycle Is Treatment Needed?

Treatment and therapy can be effective at any stage in the addiction cycle, the types of treatment and effective modalities will vary based on the individual, symptoms, and stage of drug use. Addiction is a chronic, relapsing disease that necessitates continuous treatment, even during periods of maintenance or recovery.

Drug abuse refers to the misuse of substances in a way that is harmful or risky, often leading to negative consequences in various aspects of life, such as health, relationships, and work. Over time, this abuse can lead to physical and psychological dependence, making it increasingly difficult to quit without professional help. Drug abuse without physical tolerance can be treated through partial hospitalization programs that use evidence-based therapies since medical withdrawal symptoms are usually not present in the abuse category of the addiction cycle. 

Tolerance is another critical stage of addiction that refers to the body’s adaptation to the presence of a drug, requiring higher doses to achieve the same effects initially experienced. This escalation in dosage can further entrench the cycle of addiction, making treatment even more crucial at this stage and also necessitating medical care in order to recover. At the stage of physical dependence, drug addicts require medical care to detox from the substance, which should take place in an inpatient rehab center.

Given its chronic and relapsing nature, addiction often requires a multi-faceted treatment approach. This can range from medical interventions like detoxification and medication-assisted treatment to behavioral therapies and long-term aftercare in an outpatient setting, even once sobriety is achieved. Even in the recovery stage, ongoing maintenance treatment is essential to manage cravings, prevent relapse, and address any co-occurring mental health conditions.

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