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Navigation: Experimentation, Regular Use, Risky Use, Dependence, Addiction, Treatment and Recovery, Treatment Options for Drug Addiction

There are plenty of different reasons why people abuse drugs and alcohol. Substance abuse is a complex thing that is influenced by a combination of biological, psychological, and environmental factors.

Some people turn to substance abuse in order to cope with emotional pain, trauma, or stress. They use drugs and alcohol to temporarily escape from their problems.

Additionally, some people may be genetically predisposed to substance abuse, meaning they are more likely to abuse it because it runs in their family. Social influences, such as peer pressure and economic hardships may also push someone to start abusing drugs. Without proper alternatives and healthy coping mechanisms, these habits may develop into something more dangerous.

Drug addiction is defined by the American Society of Addiction Medicine as a chronic brain disease. It affects the brain’s reward system, motivating the person to keep taking the substance even if it is already causing harmful effects. [1]

Before substance abuse turns into a full-blown addiction, it typically goes through various stages. Do keep in mind that it is possible for these stages to occur over a short period of time. It’s different for everyone. For others, it may take months or even years to develop.

At the end of the day, substance abuse is a complex issue that has plenty of ways of progressing into addiction. Not everyone follows the same path. Still, it’s worth taking a look at the common stages that people go through.


The experimentation stage of substance abuse is also known as initial use or casual use. During this phase, people may misuse drugs or alcohol out of curiosity, peer pressure, or a desire to escape from their stress or boredom.

Experimentation is marked by sporadic and controlled substance use, with users testing the effects and their own tolerance levels.

During this stage, people may still have a degree of control over their substance use. However, it also lays the groundwork for potential escalation into more problematic patterns. During experimentation, people may discover that they enjoy the euphoric effects of certain drugs.

The tricky part is that most people don’t regulate their substance intake when experimenting on various substances. This, coupled with the fact that drugs can make them feel invincible, may easily lead them to keep abusing the substance. They may even believe that the drug won’t have any negative consequences for them.

Whether or not the initial use of drugs will lead to addiction will depend on personal circumstances. If a person is exposed to multiple risk factors like genetics, peer pressure, and stress, they are more likely to develop a substance use disorder (SUD) or addiction. It does not guarantee that they will become addicted, but the risk is higher. [1] 

Regular Use

The regular use stage of substance abuse refers to a critical point in the progression of addiction. At this point, people have moved beyond experimental or occasional use. They may have already established a consistent pattern of substance consumption. [1]

The routine nature of consumption can lead to the establishment of rituals around substance use. During this stage, people start developing a preoccupation with obtaining and using the substance.

Social, occupational, and personal responsibilities will begin to take a backseat to the substance. They will begin to find it challenging to cut back or abstain.

This phase is crucial in understanding the development of addiction, as it marks the transition from recreational use to a more entrenched and problematic pattern. Regular use of drugs and alcohol may warrant an intervention so that it can be stopped before it develops into a serious problem.

Risky Use

Risky use typically means that the person has developed a heightened tolerance, whether it’s for drugs or alcohol. As the name suggests, risky use indicates an escalation in the person’s engagement with substances. Their drug use may put their own health at risk.

During this stage, people may exhibit patterns of use that increasingly put their physical and mental well-being in danger. This describes drug or alcohol intake that are far beyond recreational consumption. Harm becomes more and more apparent.

This stage is characterized by a lack of control over their substance intake and increasing tolerance. Tolerance is when someone needs to take more of a substance just to enjoy the same effects. This happens when a person takes a substance over a long period of time. The substance causes significant changes in the brain, resulting in tolerance. [1]

Tolerance is an indication that the brain’s relationship with the substance has changed. Some people become unable to feel euphoria without taking their drug of choice.

Risky use often serves as a precursor to more severe stages of substance abuse and addiction. As the negative consequences of their actions become more pronounced, people may find themselves on a dangerous path that is hard to get out of.


Over time, risky use and tolerance develop into dependence, which is considered a critical phase in the progression of addiction. This stage is marked by the profound physical and psychological reliance on a substance.

While drug addiction and dependence are two terms that are commonly used interchangeably, they are not actually the same. Not all drug dependence is addiction, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). [1]

Drug dependence is when the body has adjusted to the constant presence of a substance, to the point where it can no longer function normally without it. When drug dependence takes hold, the person may find it more difficult to quit despite the negative consequences. This is because quitting or reducing their intake leads to withdrawal symptoms, which depending on the substance may range from uncomfortable to life-threatening. [1]

Reducing their intake also leads to intense cravings, which is why most people relapse. While it is not exactly the same as drug addiction, this stage signifies a deeper entrenchment of the addiction. It signals that a comprehensive intervention may be necessary to break free from the grips of substance dependence.


Addiction, also known as substance use disorder, is a medical condition that is characterized by the compulsive intake of drugs despite its consequences.

The addiction stage represents the pinnacle of substance abuse’s destructive progression. At this stage, the person has already developed a physical and psychological dependence on the substance. It has turned into an integral part of their daily lives. [1]

The compulsive desire to use the substance takes precedence over other responsibilities and priorities. This is why many relationships are ruined in the process. The person may neglect their own hygiene and stop taking care of themselves.

Physiologically, the body undergoes adaptive changes, creating a tolerance that necessitates higher doses to achieve the desired effect.

Withdrawal symptoms emerge when the substance is not consumed, reinforcing the cycle of dependence. The addiction stage is best described as losing control over the substance and your intake.

It is crucial for addicted individuals to receive proper medical treatment in order to break free from the grips of addiction.

Treatment and Recovery

The good news is that it is possible to recover from an addiction with proper treatment. The recovery journey may be a lifelong process since this is a chronic condition, but people can still regain their sobriety and take back control of their lives.

Treatment typically involves a combination of medical, psychological, and behavioral interventions designed to address the physical and psychological aspects of addiction.

The recovery stage aims to help patients attain and maintain abstinence from substances. Rehab teaches them to manage cravings and use healthy alternatives when dealing with stressful situations. It will even teach them how to address the underlying issues that are contributing to their addiction. [1]

Various modalities, such as counseling, support groups, and medication-assisted treatment, may be used based on the patient’s specific needs. Everyone is different, that is why a personalized treatment plan is ideal when it comes to addiction treatment. [1]

Keep in mind that the recovery process is not only about stopping substance use but also about rebuilding a fulfilling and meaningful life.

Support systems, including family, friends, and recovery communities, play a crucial role during this stage, providing encouragement and understanding. Successful treatment and recovery often involve ongoing efforts, lifestyle changes, and a commitment to personal growth, enabling patients to regain control of their lives and maintain sobriety over the long term.

Treatment Options for Drug Addiction

As we mentioned above, treatment for addiction typically involves a combination of approaches. It is important to address the physical, psychological, and social aspects of the condition to ensure long-lasting recovery.

Individualized treatment plans are often the most effective because they take into account the specific needs and circumstances of the person seeking help.

Here are some common addiction treatment options:

Detoxification (Medical Detox)

The first step in treating many substance addictions involves removing the harmful substance from the body. This process, known as detox, can be done in a medical setting to manage withdrawal symptoms and complications.

This process helps stabilize the patient by gradually reducing their drug intake while medical professionals keep their withdrawal symptoms under control. Medications may be used to deal with cravings and symptoms. [2]

These programs may last a few days to weeks. Once the patient has been stabilized, they may go through the next stage of treatment, which is therapy and counseling.

Therapy and Counseling

Addressing the root causes of addictive behavior is just as important as dealing with its physical effects. There are many ways to achieve this, such as individual counseling, group therapy, and family therapy.

Individual Counseling: One-on-one counseling with a therapist or counselor allows patients to explore the underlying issues contributing to their addiction. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and motivational enhancement therapy (MET) are common approaches.

Group Therapy: Group sessions provide a supportive environment where recovering individuals can share their experiences, receive feedback, and learn from others facing similar challenges. 12-step programs, such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA), are examples.

Family Therapy: Addiction often affects not only the addicted individual but also their family and relationships. Family therapy involves the participation of family members to address communication, codependency, and other issues.

Inpatient and Outpatient Treatment

The rehab process may be done in an inpatient or outpatient setting, depending on the patient’s condition. Those with mild to moderate addiction may benefit from outpatient treatment, where they don’t need to stay in a rehab facility. [2]

Those with more severe conditions may benefit from the round-the-clock care and structured approach of inpatient treatment. One is not necessarily better than the other. It’s all about choosing which one best suits the patient.

Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT)

Medication-assisted treatment (MAT) is a comprehensive approach to treating patients with substance use disorders.

MAT combines medications with counseling and behavioral therapies to produce the best treatment results. The medications used in MAT work by mitigating cravings and withdrawal symptoms, helping patients focus on their recovery. This integrated approach has been proven effective in improving treatment outcomes, reducing relapse rates, and promoting long-term recovery for individuals grappling with substance use disorders.

Commonly prescribed medications include methadone, buprenorphine, and naltrexone.

Holistic Therapies

Some patients benefit from complementary therapies such as yoga, meditation, acupuncture, art therapy, music therapy, equine therapy, etc. These approaches can address the physical, mental, and spiritual aspects of recovery.

Aftercare and Continuing Support

Once formal treatment is completed, ongoing support is crucial for maintaining recovery. This may include participation in support groups, continued counseling, and other resources to prevent relapse.

It’s important to consult with healthcare professionals to determine the most appropriate treatment plan for the patient. Treatment effectiveness can be influenced by factors such as the type and severity of the addiction, the presence of co-occurring disorders, and the person’s motivation for change.

Remember that not everyone who experiments with substances progresses through all these stages. Some individuals may be able to reduce or stop their use without developing a severe substance use disorder. Early intervention and support are essential in preventing the progression to more advanced stages of substance abuse.

If you or someone you love is struggling with substance use disorder, look for a rehab near you today and learn more about the available treatment options. The road to recovery begins today.





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Fel Clinical Director of Content
Felisa Laboro has been working with addiction and substance abuse businesses since early 2014. She has authored and published over 1,000 articles in the space. As a result of her work, over 1,500 people have been able to find treatment. She is passionate about helping people break free from alcohol or drug addiction and living a healthy life.

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