The 3 Stages of Addiction: Bingeing, Withdrawal, and Anticipation

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Addictive substances, such as heroin, ketamine and cocaine all interact with key areas of the brain, causing harmful changes to take shape over time. In effect, the pleasant sensations from a drug “high” develop out of drastic chemical changes in the brain.

Over time, the effects of drug use drive a person to engage in certain drug-using patterns that take shape in stages, namely bingeing, withdrawal and anticipation. In effect, these three patterns of addiction all work together to promote continued drug use. Without needed treatment help, these patterns will continue to grow worse over time.

The Addiction Cycle

Anyone who’s lived with addiction for any length of time falls into a cycle of behavior that’s fueled by the body’s need for the drug and the mind’s dependence on the drug’s effects. According to the Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology, the addiction cycle evolves over time as the brain becomes increasingly dependent on the drug to function.

During the course of a growing addiction, the brain’s weakening state gradually gives way to the three stages of addiction.

The 3 Stages of Addiction


Most all addictive drugs force the brain to produce excess amounts of neurotransmitter chemicals. Consequently, the cells that produce these chemicals become overworked and develop structural damage over time.

When this happens, it takes larger amounts of the drug to produce the desired “high” effect. Before long, a person must ingest multiple doses or incredibly large dosage amounts, also known as bingeing, in order to experience any effects at all.


Withdrawal, the second stage of addiction, develops out the increasing damage caused to chemical-producing brain cells. In effect, this damage not only causes rampant chemical imbalances throughout, but also compromises the brain’s ability to regulate the body’s functions.

Withdrawal episodes play a pivotal role in driving continued drug use as users resort to self-medicating uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms with more of the drug. Withdrawal symptoms, such as agitation, depression, anxiety, insomnia and restlessness grow more and more severe as the brain undergoes even more damage from continued drug use.


The three stages of addiction come full circle once a person starts to anticipate or crave the drug’s effects on an ongoing basis. According to the University of Pennsylvania Health System, this stage indicates a person’s thinking, emotions and overall belief systems have become dependent on the drug to cope with daily life.

At this point, addicts organize their daily activities around getting and using the drug with little to no regard for any negative consequences that result.

Treatment Considerations

From the physical hold that drugs exert on the body to the psychological dependence that develops along the way, the three stages of addiction form a vicious cycle of drug use that won’t end until a person gets needed treatment help. In effect, the longer a person puts off getting treatment help, the harder it is to break the addiction cycle.