The Five Stages of Alcohol Addiction Explained


Alcohol addiction happens in several stages, each with its own markers that can be used as early warnings.

The progression speed through those stages differs from one person to another, but early recognition of signs can help prevent descent into alcohol use disorder (AUD).

This post discusses in detail the five stages of alcohol addiction, as well as suggested measures to go through with every stage.

How Does Alcohol Addiction Develop?

Alcohol addiction develops when the individual is unable to stop drinking alcoholic beverages without experiencing physical and psychological manifestations.

While alcohol can be consumed every once in a while without problem, addiction occurs when the person is unable to function normally without drinking.

Alcohol promotes a euphoric state in the brain, which can make people come back for more. The enhanced negative emotional state that could occur between the pleasurable episodes of drinking increase the urge to drink even more.

However, alcohol abuse doesn’t occur instantly. It takes several stages of drinking before the individual is dependent on alcohol consumption. There are five stages of alcohol addiction:

  • Occasional drinking
  • Excessive drinking
  • Stress-associated drinking
  • Alcohol dependence
  • Alcohol addiction

First Stage: Occasional Drinking

Occasional drinking involves individual drinking episodes. These episodes can happen through outings, gatherings, and celebrations.

This type of drinking is often done by people new to the experience. They are either trying alcohol or testing their limits, which is why this type of drinking is common among young adults.

Occasional drinking can involve a couple of drinks with a meal or a full-fledged binge-drinking episode. Binge drinking is when too much alcohol is consumed within two hours. That’s five or more drinks for men and four or more drinks for women.

Binge drinking and alcohol addiction aren’t the same thing. However, binge drinking doesn’t only bring the individual closer to addiction; it also has its own list of side effects that include, but aren’t limited to:

  • Drowsiness, confusion, and blurry vision.
  • Loss of balance and inability to walk properly.
  • Inability to drive or operate heavy machinery.
  • Coma and death (in severe cases).

Second Stage: Excessive Drinking

The pleasurable sensation associated with drinking starts becoming more sought if the drinking sessions are closer. So instead of occasionally drinking at parties and gatherings, the individual may find themselves drinking every weekend.

This stage can be confused with moderate drinking, which is consuming a glass of wine or a beer with a meal. However, while both can be considered ‘regular drinking,’ moderate drinking is having a drink for the flavor of the alcohol, not the euphoric feeling. Excessive drinking, on the other hand, means drinking for the sole reason of feeling good.

Here are the signs that mean the individual is in the excessive drinking stage:

  • Drinking out of boredom or not having a specific purpose.
  • Drinking to reduce the effect of loneliness, sadness, or social isolation.
  • Feeling the urge to drink whenever they see alcohol, even if they weren’t craving it before seeing it.

Excessive drinking can also be used to alleviate stress, which can lead to the next stage.

Third Stage: Stress-associated Drinking (Problem Drinking)

Once a person starts drinking whenever stressed, they’re in the third stage. The individual finds it difficult to cope with life’s stress without consuming alcohol.

Since stress is a common occurrence in most people’s lives, alcohol consumption becomes almost daily.

Signs of increased drinking frequency also start to show up; these include:

  • Anxiety and depression.
  • Insomnia or lack of sleep.
  • Stomachaches and headaches.
  • Nausea and vomiting.

While it’s easier to acknowledge the problem and tone down the drinking at this stage, the pleasurable sensation is often too tempting for the struggling individual to care about long-term consequences.

The continuation of drinking in this stage often leads to erratic behavior, which can impact the individual’s relationships, social activity, and friend circles. The person also starts to miss work and become less productive.

They may also forget important tasks, like picking up the kids from school, family gatherings, and routine daily activities.

Fourth Stage: Alcohol Dependence

In this stage, the struggling individual finds it difficult to think properly without consuming alcohol. Instead of having alcohol as a means for pleasure, a person may form their life around alcohol, trying to shorten the periods between drinking as much as possible.

This is most likely because of the developed alcohol tolerance. Because of excessive drinking, the body now needs higher alcohol quantities to achieve the same euphoric effect, resulting in a more pressing urge to consume alcohol.

Keep in mind that while dependence can be considered alcoholism, it has not yet developed into addiction at this point. Both forms are alcoholism, but dependence means that alcohol has taken over an individual’s routine where they revolve their life around it.

Addiction, on the other hand, means that the person will experience severe physical and psychological manifestations if alcohol isn’t consumed.

Still, alcohol dependence does have its share of withdrawal symptoms, which include:

  • Severe irritability which causes the person to snap out or lose control because of simple triggers.
  • Inability to sleep at night.
  • Rapid heartbeat, or tachycardia.
  • Constant hangover symptoms.
  • Profuse sweating, even when the weather is cold.

Fifth Stage: Addiction

At this stage, drinking becomes the primary priority. Not only will the individual not be able to function without alcohol, but alcohol withdrawal may lead to severe tremors or even hallucinations.

The individual no longer seeks pleasure out of alcohol consumption, they feel the physical and psychological need to drink.

Alcohol consumption has become as frequent or even more than water consumption. The person will try to drink whenever possible, regardless of the consequences.

Physical alcohol dependence also increases at this stage because of the excessive consumption, further reducing the euphoric effect and leading to more consumption.

The individual may even resort to other methods (like substance abuse) to achieve the desired effect.

How to Handle Drinking in Each Stage

Handling the drinking problem depends on the current stage it’s in. During the first stage, where the person drinks only on occasion or sometimes with food, addiction risk is at its minimum.

At this point, it’s important to keep the person aware of the potential effects should they increase their alcohol consumption more than the current amount.

Regardless of how little is consumed, alcohol is still considered a toxin with various effects on the human body, and it’s always better to be completely sober if you’re afraid of the effects it might have on you.

If the drinking progresses to the second stage, where the person drinks at least once a week, even without an occasion, more precautions should be taken.

In addition to verbal awareness, actionable steps like limiting alcohol access by hiding it or not purchasing it at all should be considered. Direct conversations about alcohol consumption should also be tackled to make it clear that this behavior isn’t healthy.

Once drinking starts to be associated with stress, then the individual is likely no longer able to regulate stress without the aid of alcohol. Consulting a therapist at this stage can be a good idea, as individuals in this stage can be somewhat unpredictable.

Other family members should also be notified about the problem, as it may need a collaborative effort to get over it.

When the dependence or addiction stages are reached, professional help and/or in-patient therapy will mostly be required. Alcohol consumption has clouded the majority of the affected person’s judgment, and reasoning can become overly difficult.

Besides hospitalization, several other resources exist to help treat alcohol addiction. Here are some of them:

  • National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)
  • National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD)
  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)

Final Words

Alcohol abuse can easily begin with occasional drinking and progress to addiction before the person can grasp the size of the problem.

By following the markers and identifying the stages of alcoholism, you can eliminate a potential addiction before it even begins.

If you or anyone you know is struggling with alcohol, book an appointment with CuredNation. We’ll guide you through your struggle in complete privacy and help you put your life back together.


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