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.

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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