The Early Stages of Addiction: Initiation and Experimentation

The Stages of Addiction

Addiction is a chronic and progressive disease of the brain, and it’s largely misunderstood. To better understand how addiction develops, it’s important to understand the stages of addiction, which can begin in childhood, adolescence or adulthood. Interventions during the early, middle or late stages of addiction can help individuals prevent the onset of addiction or recover fully once an addiction has developed.

The Early Stages of Addiction: Initiation and Experimentation

The stages of addiction start when an individual first begins using drugs or alcohol. Whether the early stages of use will lead to an addiction depends on a number of factors. Initiation and experimentation are the earliest stages of addiction.


Initiation is the initial introduction to drugs or alcohol. This stage typically occurs during the teenage years. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 7.3 percent of eighth graders, 19.9 percent of tenth graders and 33.2 percent of twelfth graders used alcohol in the past month. Likewise, 5.4 percent of eighth graders, 14 percent of tenth graders and 22.5 percent of twelfth graders used marijuana in the past 30 days.

Children naturally assert their independence as they mature. They seek new challenges and take new risks, and these risks often include trying alcohol, marijuana or other drugs. Additionally, peer pressure, curiosity and the desire to feel independent can lead to the initiation stage of addiction.

Research shows that the earlier the initiation, the greater the risk of developing a substance use disorder down the road and the faster the stages of addiction will likely develop.


The experimentation stage of addiction is characterized by using substances more regularly in particular situations, such as during parties, at the bar on the weekends or after a tough day on the job.

During the experimentation stages of addiction, substance use is largely a social endeavor associated with friends, relaxation and fun times. There are no cravings, and using is a conscious choice, usually guided by what’s happening socially.

Risk Factors for Addiction

Addiction almost always has underlying causes. Some people are at a higher risk of becoming addicted than others starting from childhood. Around half of the risk of addiction is genetic, and the other half is environmental. Research shows that events and experiences in infancy and childhood have an important impact on later stages of addiction. Additionally, mental illness and chronic stress can be powerful motivators for substance abuse.

The stages of addiction often begin with childhood trauma, when children develop unhealthy coping skills or a sense of hopelessness and helplessness. While trauma at any age can lead to substance abuse as a way to cope, childhood trauma—physical and sexual abuse, neglect and witnessing violence—dramatically increases the risk of addiction later on, according to a study published in the journal Depression and Anxiety. The National Survey of Adolescents and other surveys show that more than 70 percent of adolescents in treatment for a substance use disorder had a history of trauma.

Mental illness is also an important risk factor for substance abuse and addiction. People with mental illnesses like anxiety or mood disorders often use drugs or alcohol to self-medicate unpleasant symptoms. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, people who are diagnosed with a mental illness are around twice as likely as the general population to also have a substance use disorder. Similarly, people who are diagnosed with a substance use disorder are around twice as likely as the general population to also have a mood or anxiety disorder.

Chronic stress is another common underlying cause of addiction. This is the kind of stress that comes from living with poverty, abuse or family dysfunction. People who are under constant stress are likely to use drugs and alcohol to relax and numb unpleasant emotions.


Read part two of this four part series, The Middle Stages of Addiction: Substance Abuse, or download the entire series as a fully illustrated eBook, The Stages of Addiction.

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