The 5 Stages of Alcoholism
Alcoholism is a progressive disease of the body and mind. This disease is characterized by cravings, loss of control, and increasing alcohol intake in order to produce the desired effect. Additionally, alcoholics typically drink in order to escape from their reality or from feelings in relation to past-traumas. Because of this, an individual’s addiction to alcohol will progress over time. While every alcoholic will have an individual experience, varying in severity, there are 5 stages of alcoholism.
The Stages of Alcoholism
According to recent studies, nearly 17 million American adults suffer from alcohol use disorder. Because of this, it is important to remain educated on the signs and symptoms of alcoholism. If you or a loved one are suffering from alcoholism, being able to identify an individual’s current stage of alcoholism will aid in finding proper alcohol treatment.
Stage 1: Experimenting and Binge Drinking
The first stage of alcoholism is characterized by general experimentation with alcohol. Often times, this occurs during a person’s teen years or early adulthood. Because these drinkers are new to alcohol and are unsure of their own limits, binge drinking is common. While these individuals may not be daily drinkers, they do consume large amounts of alcohol at once.
In order to be considered a binge drinker, men must consume 5 drinks every 2 hours while women must consume 4. However, many binge drinkers will exceed this amount substantially. While binge drinking may seem harmless, this is far from the truth. In fact, binge drinking can lead to serious health concerns such as alcohol poisoning, comas, and even death. Additionally, drinking in large amounts can lead to alcohol dependency or addiction – making it the first stage of alcoholism.
Stage 2: Increased Tolerance to Alcohol
Once an individual begins to drink more frequently, they have entered the second stage of alcoholism. During this stage, drinkers are typically still drinking solely in social settings. However, they need to consume more alcohol in order to produce the same effect they experienced in the beginning. Additionally, this stage of alcoholism is when an individual will begin to identify a sense of emotional relief as an effect of alcohol.
Examples of regular alcohol use include drinking during a celebratory event or pairing a glass of wine with a meal. On the other hand, moderate drinkers will drink in order to relieve their negative emotions or “blow off steam”. In order to be in the second stage of alcoholism, an individual will have become a moderate drinker. Often times, people will develop a slight psychological dependence during this stage of alcoholism.
Stage 3: Problem Drinking
The third stage of alcoholism is characterized by a person experiencing problems as a direct result of their drinking. “Problem drinker” is a term commonly used in today’s society to describe a person whose drinking has caused them emotional, physical, social, or financial issues. Similarly, this also describes the third stage of alcoholism.
The social signs of problem drinking include, but are not limited to:
- Relationship issues
- Sudden change in friends or social scenes
- Decrease in social activity due to erratic behavior
- An issue conversing with strangers
Problem drinkers may experience heightened depression, anxiety, or disturbances in sleeping patterns. Additionally, an individual may feel ill due to their drinking, however, enjoy the effects produced too much to stop. Often times, drinkers at this stage of alcoholism are more likely to experience legal issues because of their alcohol use.
Stage 4: Physical Dependence
Commonly, people believe the misconception of alcohol dependency and alcohol addiction is one and the same. However, alcohol dependence can occur before addiction is developed. The fourth stage of alcoholism is characterized by an individual experiencing a dependence on alcohol. Alcohol dependence is defined as the point at which a person has no control over their alcohol intake.
In addition, people suffering from alcohol dependence acquire tolerance. As a result, the individual will have to consume a larger quantity of alcohol to experience the desired effect. Similarly, when a person increases their alcohol intake, they also increase the risk of damage to their body. Also, one of the main characteristics of alcohol dependence is withdrawal. Alcohol withdrawal occurs when a person becomes sober from alcohol after a long period of drinking.
Alcohol withdrawal symptoms include:
- Body tremors
- Nausea unrelated to a hangover
- Extreme irritability
- Increased or racing heartbeat
- Issues sleeping or insomnia
Stage 5: Addiction or Alcoholism
The fifth and most troublesome stage of alcoholism occurs once a person is mentally and physically addicted. During this stage, individuals feel a need to drink rather than just a want. Individuals in this stage of alcoholism will never go very long without having a drink in order to avoid severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms. Additionally, it is common for them to abuse other substances in combination with alcohol.
Often times, alcoholics develop chronic health conditions as a result of their drinking. These conditions include heart disease, liver damage, brain damage, malnutrition, and mental disorders. Unfortunately, individuals who are addicted to alcohol are at an increased risk of suicide due to severe depression and anxiety. Additional psychological effects include dementia and paranoia.
Treatment for Alcoholism
Alcoholism is a progressive, five-stage disease that can be treated through professional medical attention. Treatment and recovery are possible during any of the stages of alcoholism. However, the risks of alcoholism significantly decrease the sooner an individual receives treatment. While some of the effects of alcoholism can be permanent, treatment often results in a full recovery.
In order to fully recover from alcoholism, attending a medical detoxing program, individual therapy, and group therapy sessions are vital. Luckily, alcoholism treatment centers offer treatment plans that include each of these important tools. With the combination of professional alcoholism treatment and sobriety maintenance, recovery is possible for anyone.
Medically Reviewed: November 9, 2021
Medical Reviewer | CWC Recovery Staff
All of the information on this page has been reviewed and verified by a certified addiction professional.