The 4 Phases of Addiction

Dealing with Addiction - Part 1

In this first of three sessions, Mike describes the biology and behavior of the individual who is in the process of becoming addicted to drugs of various kinds.
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In the next three chapters we will be dealing with addictions in general. In this chapter I want to examine addictions from a physical and psychological perspective.

  • What they are
  • How we become addicted
  • The effects of addiction once they take hold

In subsequent chapters we'll see what the Bible says about addictions, their consequences and how God helps us avoid them or deal with them if they take hold of us. Hopefully, this information will give us both insight and warning about the power that various substances have to control and destroy our lives.


In the last several years there has been a lot of research done on the causes and effects of various addictions on humans. Using modern MRI technology, scientists are able to see the actual reaction that the brain has when it is stimulated by various effects (like music or visual images) as well as chemicals (i.e. illegal drugs).

In this type of research scientists have identified neural circuits that are involved in the interaction of the brain with every known illicit drug and have specified common pathways that are affected by such substances.

This means that all illegal drugs have a similar effect on the brain that can actually be seen in an x-ray. You can put up the view of an MRI (x-ray) of a non-drug user's brain next to that of an addict and can easily tell the difference. Researchers are now able to indicate elements that are common to all addictions regardless of the substance used. This has led many scientists (including Dr. Alan Leshner, former Director of the National Drug Institute in the U.S.) to declare that "drug addiction is a brain disease."

From a Biblical perspective, we can expect that many things that are considered sinful such as immoral sex, drunkenness, pride etc. can easily evolve to a point where they incapacitate the body as illness. For example:

  • The disease of AIDS is not a sin in itself, but the leading method of transmitting AIDS (sex between men) is a sin (Romans 1:27).
  • The disease of addiction is not a sin in itself but the abuse of alcohol or certain drugs leading to addiction is.
  • Being delusional or depressed is not a sin but unrestrained pride and overestimation of our self-worth that often causes these emotional problems are.

I say this because many Christians don't make a distinction between the cause (many times, but not always - sin) and the effect (many times but not always - disease). For example:

  • Some people get AIDS from an infected blood transfusion.
  • Some have an addictive personality disorder caused solely by their brain composition and not because they have abused something.
  • On the other hand some abuse something because they have emotional disorders. People who suffer from depression often self-medicate to ease their suffering and become addicted as a result.

These few examples demonstrate that we have to be very careful when we label something as sinful.

In this first section, therefore, we will study addictions as diseases, and in the next we'll examine the pathways that often lead to addiction and what the Bible says about these.

How We Become Addicted

Part of the research on addiction is charting the common elements that lead to all addictions. Here are the four phases in the progression of addiction.

Phase #1 – Learning the Mood Swing

When it comes to addiction, learning is accomplished experientially, not intellectually. Addiction is learned instinctively, intuitively, spontaneously and naturally. And so, we become addicted to something using our instincts, intuition and natural feelings. The first phase in addiction, therefore, is that we "learn" certain things:

A. We learn that certain chemicals produce euphoria.

Euphoria is a "feeling" of some kind that changes our state of mind.

  • It is always beyond natural feelings. This is why it is called a "high".
  • The words used to describe the feelings we experience are, "Very happy, very relaxed, very excited, very confident, etc."
  • The feeling is real, but that reality is exaggerated.

This is where the MRI's come in. They can track which part of the brain is being affected by the substance a person is taking and how the brain is reacting. In the MRI below, the dots represent the chemical THC found in cannabis products. We note that the THC is spreading to different parts of the brain affecting both sensory and motor skills.

B. We learn that the degree of euphoria is determined by the quantity ingested.

  • Too much – bad high/sick
  • Too little – No high/euphoria

C. Key Lesson Learned - Phase #1

We learn to trust chemicals and their effects because they work every time. It doesn't always happen the first time we try a substance but with repeated use we eventually "learn" (intuitively, naturally) this lesson.

This is what Phase #1 looks like on a chart.

  • The x in the middle is normal state/on the left is pain/on the right is euphoria.
  • Note that addictions occur when we go from "normal" to "euphoria".

The meds that you take when in legitimate pain do not become addictive if you stop using them when the pain stops. People become addicted to pain killers because when they return to "normal" they begin to use them to create euphoria instead of going from pain to normal. As long as the medication takes you from pain to normal you're not learning addiction – this is why you should take your pain medications regularly when sick or injured.

Phase #2 – Seeking the Mood Swing

Once you've "learned" to trust chemicals to change your mood, you have moved to the second phase of addictions where you are now actively seeking the mood swing. This phase has its own progress:

  1. You begin using chemicals at appropriate times and places (parties, to relax, etc.)
  2. You learn to control the quality and outcome of the chemical using experiences (avoid overuse, hangovers, illness, etc.). Keeping things under control, remaining "highly functional" while using,
  3. Social users remain in this phase. Most people think they can remain indefinitely in this phase.

This is Phase #2 on the chart. Note that it looks like #1 because it is reinforcing the lesson "learned" in Phase #1 – this "works" for me.

Phase #3 – Chemical Dependance

There's no time frame between Phase #2 and Phase #3. Events, our own character or the repetition of our consumption eventually lead to Phase #3. You know you're there because like Phase #1 and #2, Phase #3 has its own markers which include:

  1. You have a growing anticipation and preoccupation with chemical use. More time is spent thinking and worrying about not having access.
  2. Your lifestyle begins to change and revolve around chemical use.
  3. You begin to lose control over the times and amount of use (i.e. begin to use at work or use too much).
  4. Usage begins to promote behavior that violates your personal value system (i.e. steal to use; immoral while using).
  5. You adopt a user peer group that accepts this behavior. This allows negative feelings about self to grow without being identified or addressed. No one in the user's circle will challenge the bad behavior.
  6. You learn to rationalize and suppress feelings, and Begin to be separate/alone.
  7. You project self-hatred on to others and have conflicts with family members.
  8. Your higher tolerance of chemicals leads to more ingenious ways to obtain and use them. This leads to various "Rituals" of drug taking and experimentation with type and quantity.
  9. Your health, as well as emotional and spiritual stability, begin to deteriorate.

The chart for Phase #3 shows that the user has shifted his "normal" state from normal to pain. There is pain without chemicals so the pattern now begins at pain, moves to Euphoria and then back to pain not normalcy. There is pain and a high with a stop at normal. This is the point where you're losing your job, family and friends because of your dependency.

Phase #4 – Addiction

People who are "dependent" need chemicals to function normally. Addicts need chemicals to stay alive and sane. Some of the markers for full-blown addiction.

  1. Using to feel normal. Addicts cannot get to the Euphoria anymore; they use to stop the self-induced pain caused by chemical abuse. This is different than the true and natural pain caused by a broken ankle for example. The addict's pain is caused by chemical abuse.
  2. There is withdrawal when the chemical is withheld. An addict feels pain because there is no infusion of chemical. The withdrawals include nausea, sweats, blackouts, paranoia and psychological pain.
  3. Users seek to escape the pain by changing location, moving.
  4. Addicts experience a loss of desire to live and complete spiritual bankruptcy.
  5. Addicts become fatalists thinking that there is no way out so I might as well use.

This is a chart for Phase #4. Note there is no euphoria, only pain and a false normalcy. According to research on the subject, addiction is the final step in a process where one "learns" to use various substances in order to affect the brain in altering one's perception of reality, or what is "normal."

Activities and Personality Addictions

People who are addicted change their activities and their personalities. For example, things like:

  • Paranoia – natural fear/suspicion.
  • Depression – feelings of loss, self-hatred.
  • Narcissism – relationship with the chemical becomes more important than all other relationships.
  • Intimacy – the inability to form or maintain intimate relationships.
  • Risk-Taking – taking chemicals to induce euphoria is risky. Maintaining the habit provides excitement. Going without chemicals seems boring.
  • Authority – Addicts reject every type of authority. Authority opposes their continued use of chemicals.
  • Morality – The need for drugs is stronger than the need to love or do right.

Discouraging as these traits may be, those who work with addicts and study their behavior say that many of these personality characteristics and activities are caused by a person's use of drugs. The good news is that these traits can be reversed with the withdrawal from chemical abuse.


This has been a brief introduction to the subject of addiction: What causes it; How it progresses; What effects it has on us. In the next chapter we will examine why people begin to abuse chemicals, what the Bible says about this issue and how to both avoid and recover from addiction.

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