Understanding Addiction as a Disease and How It Develops

April 17, 2023

Written By: Buena Vista Recovery

Understanding Addiction as a disease can help you better understand how it develops. Anyone can be affected by addiction. Addictions as a disease are complex issues, and taking the time to understand the stages of how an addiction can develop, may help you better understand your addiction and how to overcome it. It is not a character flaw, and sometimes, it is out of your control. The chemicals in your brain can make you do irrational things even though you know you shouldn’t be doing them. It doesn’t mean that you have failed as a person!

Addiction as a Disease: It’s Complicated

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) describes addiction as “a chronic relapsing brain disease that causes compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences.” Addictions are a very complex problem. There are many reasons why someone might get addicted to drugs and alcohol. There are many things that play into a person with an addiction. There are things to consider — like genetics, psychosocial, and environmental factors — that influence a person to reach for drugs or not. 

The brain is a very complex organ. It controls pretty much all functions of the body. So, how does the brain work in conjunction with drugs? The use of drugs affects the way the neurons in the brain send, receive, and process signals from chemicals known as neurotransmitters. Some drugs mimic neurotransmitters in the brain, and others cause the brain to release abnormally large amounts of neurotransmitters in the brain.

When this happens repeatedly, it causes the messages being sent through neurons to be abnormal and confusing for the brain. Over time, your brain will feel like it cannot function without the use of substances because it is not getting enough of the neurotransmitters on its own. It needs substances to enhance the production of neurotransmitters, which is how the addiction starts.

Addiction as a Disease: The 5 Stages in the Development of Addiction

There are several stages in the development of an addiction as a disease. Most, if not all addictions usually form in this manner. There are five stages, which are:

#1. Pre-addiction

This pre-addiction stage is the time period before someone becomes addicted. There oftentimes aren’t very many signs at this stage, and if there are signs/symptoms, they oftentimes are quite subtle. 

This phase can last anywhere from a few months to several years. They may just be thinking of trying something but haven’t actually taken the plunge into trying something. There is no way to really tell how long someone will be in this phase, and some people may never leave this stage. Others will move through it very quickly. 

#2. Initial Use or Experimentation

The initial use stage is the time in which an individual tries a substance for the first time. This may come after lots of thoughts of trying it, or it might come as a spur-of-the-moment type of thing. There are many reasons someone might enter this stage, including:

  • Curiosity: The desire to experience something new and exciting
  • To fit in: Feeling the peer pressure of others around you trying things or feel like you are part of the group
  • To escape: Using substances to escape from an unpleasant life/circumstances

#3. Abuse

The abuse stage is when someone starts to use substances regularly. Your body is beginning to want the drug more and more. You might experience withdrawal if you stop taking the substance at this point. This is often when those closest to the person using the substances might notice a difference in behavior. If the person using the substance isn’t in denial, they might start to seek treatment at this phase. However, many people do not see a problem with their drug usage at this point. 

#4. Dependence

The dependence stage begins with your body becoming accustomed to having the substances in your body, and at this point, your brain needs them in order to function normally on a day-to-day basis. Dependence is a physical and psychological need. It is no longer a desire at this point; your brain is telling you that you need it to survive. 

Withdrawal symptoms would absolutely be present if you stopped using substances at this stage. It would be dangerous for you to withdraw by yourself once you have reached the dependence stage. It would be best to detox under the care of a physician.

5. Recovery and Relapse

This is the stage where people take steps to receive treatment and overcome their addiction as a disease. It might take someone a long time to reach this stage. Some people even believe that a person will need to hit rock bottom before getting to this stage. But recovery is possible! For every single person that becomes addicted to a substance. You can recover!

This stage also includes relapse. Unfortunately, relapse is part of recovery, a part of the process of experiencing e a relapse at some point during your journey. It doesn’t make you a failure. It is not an excuse to go off the deep end. But it does happen, and it is ok. Reach out for help, and get back on track. You absolutely can do this and be successful. 

Addiction is a complex disease, and it comes in stages. It starts out with a thought and can slowly or quickly turn into a full-blown addiction. It is important for everyone to understand the general stages of addiction so that you can try to catch yourself or recognize when addiction begins to form in someone you love. If you suspect you or someone you love might be struggling with an addiction, getting help as soon as possible is critical. At Buena Vista Recovery, we can help you achieve long-term sobriety through an individualized plan. For information on treatment options, call (480) 741-9414. You can regain control of your life with Buena Vista.