The Stages of Alcoholism: How It Starts

The Stages of Alcoholism: How It Starts

Alcoholism (or alcohol use disorder) is a condition that progresses through several stages before reaching a point where it significantly impacts someone’s life. Having an understanding of these stages can be incredibly useful, not only for those struggling with alcohol addiction but also for their loved ones, as early detection and intervention are always the best.

In this article, we will walk through the stages of alcoholism, focusing on how it may start.


Stage 1: Alcohol Consumption & Experimentation

The journey into alcoholism often starts innocently. For many, this involves experimenting with alcohol when they are young adults.

Initially, alcohol is consumed for its effects that involve making you feel good, or maybe just to relax, or because of peer pressure. At this early stage, drinking isn’t “frequent”, but the individual may engage in binge drinking behaviour, depending on the environment. Even when drinking alcohol at a level where it’s classed as alcohol abuse or binge drinking, it usually does not lead to any long-term alcohol abuse or alcohol dependence. But for some, it can be the start of something developing.

So, to recap stage 1:

  • At this stage, the individual is only experimenting with alcohol.
  • The individual may notice that they like how they feel when drinking alcohol.
  • The individual may occasionally binge drink alcohol in social settings.
  • There are no indications of alcohol dependence at this stage.


Stage 2: Increased and Frequent Alcohol Consumption

Although this is still defined as an early to mid-stage, the frequency and quantity of alcohol increase. So, what might have started as just occasional social drinking can gradually become a normal, almost expected part of social interactions.

In some cases, an individual might also engage in other forms of substance abuse at this stage, as drinking typically makes people not focus on the consequences of harmful actions, such as consuming drugs.

At this point, individuals may even start developing tolerance to alcohol. Drinking alcohol may also become either a conscious or subconscious way of coping with unpleasant feelings, such as stress.

Problem drinking and the warning signs of alcoholism become more apparent in this stage, but not typically enough for it to be categorised as alcohol dependence.

To recap stage 2 in the stages of alcoholism:

  • The person is drinking more alcohol frequently.
  • They might engage in other forms of substance abuse, but this isn’t always the case.
  • Problem drinking habits are more apparent.
  • The individual may consume alcohol as a way of coping with negative emotions, either consciously or subconsciously.
  • The warning signs that the person might be developing an alcohol addiction are there, but there is time to prevent it.


Stage 3: Alcohol Dependence

Whether it’s physical or psychological, either one or both forms of dependence on alcohol are present at this stage.

Individuals may feel that they need alcohol to function or feel like themselves. They may even experience physical alcohol withdrawal symptoms when not drinking, which can include (but is not limited to):

  • Shaking
  • Hand tremors
  • Craving a drink.
  • Feeling nauseous or physically vomiting
  • Not being able to sleep properly
  • Sweating
  • Feeling anxious

The person will continue to drink alcohol despite knowing the harm it is causing them, as it might not feel as though they can “choose” to stop anymore. It’s at this point that there may be an element of denial, but the ability to control or limit drinking also feels very difficult. The need for professional support becomes more obvious and recommended to prevent the disease known as alcohol use disorder.

To recap stage 3:

  • An alcohol dependence forms.
  • The individual experiences alcohol withdrawal symptoms when they stop drinking alcohol.
  • Drinking alcohol no longer feels like a choice.
  • They are aware of the negative consequences but may be in denial of there being a problem with alcohol.
  • They may feel unable to stop drinking.
  • Professional intervention is advised.


Stage 4: Addiction and Alcoholism

A total loss of control over alcohol use characterises the final stage. This stage is marked by an inability to stop drinking despite facing serious negative consequences in their health, personal life, and social relationships.

At this point, the person keeps drinking even though it’s causing significant problems. In the context of health, this can lead to severe conditions such as liver disease (which impacts the body’s ability to filter toxins), heart issues (which can impact heart function and overall health) and mental health disorders, including depression or anxiety. The risk of accidents increases due to impaired judgment and physical coordination caused by excessive alcohol consumption.

Alcoholism at this stage is recognised as a disease. It creates a cycle of compulsive alcohol use, where the person feels an overwhelming urge to drink despite even wanting to quit. This compulsive behaviour indicates a significant change in the brain’s functioning, making it extremely challenging for the individual to resist the urge to drink.

Alcohol addiction can be either very obvious or the complete opposite. Some people develop alcohol addiction yet are still able to hide this from even the closest people in their lives. This is known as functioning alcohol addiction, and it means that the individual maintains all of their responsibilities whilst drinking heavily and frequently, usually within “planned” times.

In terms of recovery, professional treatment for alcohol addiction becomes a necessity here. This may include staying at a rehab clinic to ensure a safe alcohol withdrawal period, as well as ongoing treatment for the psychological aspects of alcohol addiction.

To recap stage 4:

  • The disease known as alcohol use disorder has now fully developed.
  • The individual might feel like they want to quit drinking but are completely unable to do so.
  • The person will continue to drink frequently and heavily, even if there are significant negative consequences associated with their alcohol abuse.
  • Alcohol abuse and addiction can be either obvious or hidden from the people in their lives.
  • The individual is now more at risk of alcohol-related diseases and mental health conditions.
  • Some form of professional support has now become a necessity.


Recognising the Signs and Seeking Help

Recognising the signs of alcoholism at an early stage can be challenging, especially when drinking is socially acceptable and often encouraged. This is why alcohol addiction can develop without the individual being aware until it feels overwhelmingly difficult to stop.

If you or someone you know is showing signs of progressing through the stages of alcoholism, it’s important to seek help. Treatment can vary depending on the stage of alcoholism but may include detoxification, counselling, medication, and support groups. It’s never too late to seek help, and recovery is always possible with the right support and resources.

Call our free number today at 0800 470 0382  for more information on how we can help.