Alcoholism is a progressive disease, something that occurs over a period rather than overnight, with the addiction becoming more and more destructive over time. Alcoholism results in cravings, a loss of control, a physical dependence on the alcohol, and the need for increasing amounts of alcohol to elicit the same intoxicating effects as before. In the United States, it is socially acceptable to drink alcohol on a regular basis, and for many teens and young adults, it’s considered a rite of passage to drink heavily and regularly. Unfortunately, this casual attitude towards alcohol can result in a lack of understanding about just how damaging alcohol can be, and how quickly regular consumption of alcohol can lead to different stages of alcohol addiction.
The Five Stages of Alcohol Addiction
Heavy drinking is considered alcohol abuse when it harms the health of the user, puts him or her in dangerous situations, or negatively impacts his or her work and social relationships, and research has shown that there are five distinct stages of alcoholism.
- Stage One: Experimentation. The first stage of alcohol addiction is experimentation, occurring when a person begins experimenting with alcohol, testing their limits to see how much they can handle. At this juncture, drinking is primarily social, but it’s a good time for drinkers to assess their motivation for drinking. Is it to reduce anxiety, to feel good, to escape bad feelings or thoughts, or to relieve physical pain? If the answer to any of these questions is “yes,” there may be a reason to be cautious.
- Stage Two: Regular Use. During this stage, users have incorporated alcohol into their everyday lives, and have become increasingly tolerant to the substance, which means they need to consume increasing amounts of alcohol to experience the same intoxicating effects as before. In some cases, regular alcohol use may not appear to be problematic, especially if the user suffers few noticeable adverse effects and continues to function as before.
- Stage Three: Risky Use. The third stage of alcohol addiction is risky use. Risky drinking can be difficult to identify, especially because what some people consider risky, others may not. However, when someone advances into this stage of alcohol addiction, there are often noticeable changes in their behavior, and they may begin drinking at inappropriate times, like while driving or caring for children. They may also start to experience anxiety, depression, sleep disturbances, problems at work, relationship issues or legal problems. It is at this stage that the problem begins to be apparent to friends and loved ones.
- Stage Four: Dependence. Continued alcohol use may result in dependence, which means the person’s body and mind are reliant on the alcohol to continue to function as before. In other words, the individual no longer feels in control of when they drink or how much they drink, and during this stage, may exhibit serious behavioral changes that can become dangerous. The most noticeable sign of alcohol dependence is that alcohol begins to take priority over other things the person once enjoyed, like spending time with friends and family members.
- Stage Five: Addiction. In almost every case, long-term alcohol abuse will lead to alcohol dependence, characterized by a physical and psychological reliance on the substance. At this stage, the person no longer finds pleasure in drinking; rather, alcohol becomes a necessity. Once alcohol abuse progresses into an addiction, it can result in chronic health conditions like liver damage, heart disease, and brain damage, and the best option for help is to find a professional rehabilitation center that specializes in treating alcoholism.
Seeking Treatment for Alcohol Addiction
Any of the stages of alcohol addiction can be treated, but the earlier the disease is diagnosed and addressed, the better the chances of recovery, as it becomes more and more difficult for the addict to recognize that they need help, the longer the disease is allowed to progress. By definition, women who consume more than three drinks in a day, and men who consume more than four drinks in a day, are heavy drinkers, while women who drink more than seven drinks per week, and men who consume more than fourteen drinks per week, are binge drinkers. If you recognize any of the five stages of alcohol addiction in a friend or loved one, your best course of action is to contact a professional rehab facility to discuss the various options for alcoholism treatment.