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The 4 Stages of Alcohol and Drug Use – And When To Seek Help

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The 4 Stages of Alcohol and Drug Use – And When To Seek Help

When we think about drug use, many of us automatically think “addiction.” The same is not always said for alcohol use – perhaps that because alcohol is, for the most part, legal. There are certainly casual drinkers who don’t go too far – but rarely do we think of those who use cocaine or heroin as “casual users.”

The truth is, however, everyone’s substance use is on a continuum. For example, marijuana use, which can be habitual addictive, does not necessarily lead to physical dependence. But how does one know exactly when the line has been crossed from use, to abuse, to addiction?

The following detail four basic stages, each with identifiable characteristics that place them on the continuum between casual use and addiction.


drug use | Just Believe Recovery PAAt some point, most people experiment with one substance or another – but often, several. As humans, we are curious about the effects of psychoactive substances, and we like to have positive mental feelings and experiences.

Therefore, we often come to experimentation on our own, although sometimes we may be pressured by someone else.

Most people who experiment with drug use or alcohol do not become addicted. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t harmful. When you are not used to the effects of a certain substance, and your tolerance is low, the effects can be unpredictable and even dangerous. This is especially true for young people.

Also, for those who are predisposed to substance abuse or dependence, experimentation can be the catalyst to a downward descent into addiction. There are, of course, risk factors that may predict those most predisposed to addiction. But this is not, by any means, an exact science.

Social Use

drug use | Just Believe Recovery PASocial drinkers and drug users use substances primarily in social environments to relax and reduce inhibitions.

Substance use at this stage is not usually not as serious of a problem as solitary use, but it can still lead to increased use socially.

This is especially true for alcohol and party drugs, which people frequently use to feel elated during gatherings, parties, or at clubs, concerts, or bars.

And increasing social use can lead to solitary use if dependence evolves, and a wealth of other problems, including drunk driving, risky sexual activities, aggressive behavior, and physical injury.

Many social drinkers/drug users do not progress, but some do. The risk goes up when a present social user encounters significant life stressors, such as job or relationship issues.

Binge Drinking and Related Drug Use – You May Need Help

drug use | Just Believe Recovery PAAccording to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, around 38 million Americans binge drink an average of four times per month.

While each of these sessions averages eight drinks, binge drinking is loosely defined as drinking more than five drinks in one setting.

Binge drinking and drug use may occur just once a week or less, and often together. For example, some people combine alcohol use with marijuana use, or cocaine or other stimulants.

And the more binge drinking that occurs, the greater the chance that inhibitions will be lowered and will lead to additional drug use during these periods of bad judgment.

Males who consume five or more drinks, and women who consume four or more drinks in two hours put themselves and others at risk for injury. Binge drinkers are fourteen times more likely to admit to driving while intoxicated than those who do not.

Binge drinking is also associated with cases of alcohol poisoning (which can be fatal), sexually transmitted diseases, sexual and physical assaults, injuries, liver disease and high blood pressure. Still, more than half the alcohol consumed by adults is in the form of binge drinking. For underage drinkers, this number approaches 90%.

Although many binge drinkers do not go on to become alcoholics, many develop a serious habitual problem that requires treatment. This treatment may not need be long-term or as intensive as those with more serious addiction issues, and may come in the form of support groups, counseling, and education on the dangers of binge drinking.

Abuse, Dependency, and Addiction

drug use | Just Believe Recovery PAAddiction occurs because the brain becomes dependent on a substance. You can call it abuse or addiction, but in general, the effect is the same.

When substance use begins to negatively effect work, school, finances, or relationships, or incurs legal penalties, it’s become a serious problem.

Other signs of drug and alcohol addiction include:

  • Failing to control alcohol or drug use after attempts to quit or cut back
  • Using alcohol or drugs during dangerous and/or inappropriate situations, such as driving or during work
  • Neglecting friends, families, and previously enjoyed activities in lieu of alcohol or drug use
  • More alcohol or drugs are required to achieve the same effect (tolerance)
  • Quitting or cutting back results in withdrawal symptoms
  • Family and friends are noticing that the problem has evolved, and are being confrontational about the alcohol or drug use

An especially dangerous progression may also occur during this stage when someone who is dependent on prescription medications switches to illicit street drugs. While prescription drug addiction, especially to opioids can be incredibly dangerous, street drugs such as heroin and fentanyl are not controlled, and are thus, especially unpredictable.

Moreover, the ingredients and the potency of these drugs can vary widely from one batch to the next. This is dangerous for long-term users, but especially for those who are switching from prescription drugs and entirely naive to the risks of street drug use.

~ G. Nathalee Serrels, M.A., Psychology

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