Woman experiencing the alcoholism stages

There is a persistent myth that a person cannot benefit from treatment for alcohol addiction until they have experienced devastating effects (or hit “rock bottom”). The truth is that professional help can be effective at any time. Being able to recognize the stages of alcoholism can help you get treatment for yourself or someone that you care about before you (or they) have incurred irreversible harm. 

What is Alcoholism? 

Alcoholism is a chronic, progressive disease that is characterized by the compulsive use of alcohol even after a person has experienced negative effects due to previous drinking. The clinical term for alcoholism is alcohol use disorder. This condition is also often referred to as alcohol addiction.

Alcoholism Stages

Alcoholism begins with one drink. Eventually, it transforms into an overwhelming urge. Between these two points, a person may progress through a series of phases or stages. Several experts and organizations have attempted to describe this progression by establishing distinct stages of alcoholism.

There is no single, universally agreed-upon list of stages. Here are a few examples of how the stages of alcoholism may be organized and described:

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) charts the development of addiction via a three-stage cycle:

  1. Binge/intoxication stage: At this point, you are drinking for the purpose of getting drunk. You are enjoying the intoxicating effects of alcohol. This pleasurable response is prompting you to increase the among and frequency of your alcohol use.
  2. Negative affect/withdrawal stage: When you get to this stage, you begin to experience uncomfortable physical and psychological symptoms if you try to stop drinking. This marks a significant change in your relationship with alcohol. You are no longer drinking to achieve pleasurable effects. Instead, you are consuming alcohol to avoid painful symptoms. 
  3. Preoccupation/anticipation stage: This stage occurs after you have been able to stop drinking for a bit. You may be enticed by memories of the “fun” you had while drinking, while neglecting to recall the difficulties that you alcohol abuse caused and the unpleasantness that you endured when you first tried to quit.

The following is a common four-stage model:

  1. Pre-alcoholic: At this stage, you are drinking socially, but not experiencing problems related to your alcohol use.
  2. Early alcoholic: In the early alcoholic stage, your drinking has progressed from social to recreational. 
  3. Middle alcoholic: In the middle stage, you are beginning to drink compulsively – and your drinking is beginning to cause problems in your life.
  4. Late alcoholic: At this point, you are no longer drinking because you want to. You are drinking because you feel that you have to.

Some sources take the four stages of alcoholism listed above and add “Recovery” to create a five-stage framework with a hopeful final stage.  

Here is another common five-stage organization:

  1. Experimenting: This is similar to the binge/intoxication stage as described in the NIAAA list.
  2. Developing tolerance: As you continue to drink, you discover that you need to use greater amounts of alcohol to achieve the effects that you are seeking.
  3. Problem drinking: As the amount and frequency of your drinking increases, your alcohol use transforms from a misguided recreational pursuit into a dangerous compulsive behavior.
  4. Physical dependence: At this stage, you experience intense cravings for alcohol. When you can’t drink – or when you try to stop – your body reacts with distressing withdrawal symptoms.
  5. Addiction stage: At the addiction stage, you have lost the ability to control how much or how often you drink. Even after experiencing physical, financial, or social damage as a result of prior alcohol abuse, you simply cannot stop drinking.

Man going through the fourth and fifth stages of alcoholism

Stages of Recovery from Alcohol Addiction

Regardless of how you get from your first drink to the development of alcoholism, it is important to remember that alcohol use disorder is a treatable condition. When you receive the right type and level of care, you can transcend the despair of untreated addiction and experience the hope and promise of lifelong recovery.

Here’s another set of stages. However, instead of tracking a descent into alcoholism, these stages can serve as a roadmap toward a healthier future:

  1. Acknowledging the problem: You can’t solve any problem without first identifying it. In the case of alcoholism, this means admitting to yourself or to someone else that you have lost the ability to exert control over your alcohol use.
  2. Seeking professional help: When you admit that you can’t quit drinking on your own, you are also acknowledging that you need help. Seeking the help you need is an essential step on your journey toward a future that is free of alcohol abuse.
  3. Ending your alcohol use: Depending on the nature and severity of your alcohol abuse, you may need to spend time in a detox program to get through withdrawal. No matter how you do it, you need to rid your body of alcohol before you can fully engage in therapy and benefit from treatment.
  4. Completing treatment: During treatment, you can develop the skills and strategies that will support your efforts to establish an alcohol-free lifestyle. Your time in residential and/or outpatient care can also help you gain a solid foothold in early recovery.
  5. Maintaining your recovery: Addiction is a chronic condition. This means that you will never be “cured” – but with a concerted effort, you can manage your symptoms, respond to urges and other challenges in a healthy manner, and maintain successful, life-long recovery.

Begin Treatment for Alcoholism at Los Angeles Detox

If you have been struggling with compulsive alcohol abuse, LA Detox can help. Our alcoholism treatment center in Los Angeles, California, is a safe and supportive place where adults can take significant steps toward successful recovery. To learn more about our programs and services, or to schedule a free assessment, please visit our Contact page or call our center today.