Not everyone who uses drugs or alcohol becomes addicted, but about 164 million people worldwide have. Addiction is a progressive disease. It can hijack your brain, and your life. Genetics and certain challenges make some people more prone to addiction, but anyone can become addicted.
Experts on substance abuse and the brain identify three stages of addiction:
Stage 1: Binge and Intoxication
Drug abuse and alcohol abuse interfere with your reward system. When you drink or use drugs, your brain releases dopamine. This is a pleasurable chemical that makes you feel good. People may abuse drugs or alcohol because they like this feeling. They drink or use drugs again and again to get the same effect. When you abuse drugs and alcohol you start needing more to feel high. You develop a tolerance. This can lay the groundwork for chemical dependency.
Drug and alcohol abuse changes the brain. The more binge-drinking or drug use, the greater the changes you’ll have. During the first stage of addiction, you start developing triggers that lead to substance abuse. Your brain may start firing off dopamine in anticipation of drugs or alcohol. The anticipatory dopamine can make you have strong cravings for drugs or alcohol.
Examples of triggers may include:
- Being around people you used substances with
- Being in places where you’ve used drugs or alcohol
- Having similar thoughts as you did the last time you used drugs or alcohol
In this first stage of addiction, you start seeing warning signs like:
- Drinking or using drugs when you didn’t intend to
- Needing increasing amounts of substances to get the same effect
- Problems with relationships, work and school
- Unsuccessful attempts to quit or decrease substance abuse
Certain situations make some people more susceptible to this stage of addiction. Research shows that people with mental health issues are at greater risk for substance abuse. If you have conditions like depression or anxiety, you may like how drugs or alcohol ease your symptoms.
The problem is substance abuse only helps psychiatric symptoms temporarily. Drug and alcohol abuse backfires in the long run. The ways drugs change the brain can actually make your symptoms worse, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. When you have both mental illness and addiction, it’s called a dual diagnosis. This makes drug addiction treatment more complicated, but recovery is still possible.
Stage 2: Withdrawal and Negative Affect
The “fun” ends during the second stage of addiction. Substance abuse is no longer bringing you pleasure. Now, you’re using drugs or alcohol to avoid withdrawal. Chemical dependency is in full swing. The nervous system is sick. Your body thinks having drugs or alcohol is the norm. It goes into high alert without drugs or alcohol. The brain releases chemicals that can cause anxiety, depression and restlessness.
In the second stage of addiction, physical dependence and psychological dependence feed addiction. Withdrawal symptoms range from uncomfortable to severe depending on what substances you’re using. The cycle of substance abuse and withdrawal drives people into the third stage of addiction.
Stage 3: Preoccupation and Anticipation
“Rock bottoms” often happen in the third stage of addiction. Your brain has become rewired by chemical dependency. It thinks you need drugs or alcohol to survive and instructs you to get them no matter what it takes. Brain regions that take a big hit are ones involved in:
Everything takes a backseat to drugs or alcohol. They’re the central focus in your life. You may lie or steal to get substances. Family and friends don’t recognize the person you’ve become. Neither do you. During the third stage of addiction, you may find yourself in legal and financial trouble. Drug cravings are so strong, you’re having difficulty functioning.
Which Stage of Addiction Is Best for Treatment?
It’s never too soon or too late for addiction treatment. Any stage of addiction is a good one for drug rehab. Brain changes happen at each stage. The earlier you get help, the better. This helps prevent further damage. No matter which stage of addiction you’re in, treatment can help repair the physical and psychological damage of chemical dependency.
In general, long-term sobriety can help prevent or reverse some of the damage to your:
Quitting drugs can also rebalance brain chemicals. Your brain must learn to produce feel-good endorphins on its own again. Without drugs or alcohol this happens over a period of time. Sometimes you’ll need the help of medications and healthy lifestyle changes. Research shows that it’s possible for the brain to heal itself after a period of sobriety. It may not completely undo the damage of substance abuse, but it can get a lot better.
- Behavioral therapies to help you address why you abuse drugs or alcohol
- Psychiatric care to help manage dual diagnosis issues (substance abuse and mental health issues)
- Relapse prevention skill-building
- Family involvement to address relationship problems
- Peer support through group counseling and support programs
- Aftercare to help you stay sober after alcohol and drug addiction treatment
Addiction is a complex disease, but you can get better. Millions of people are living fulfilling lives in recovery. Sobriety is difficult work, but well worth it.