Skip to Main Content
Very few people ever decide that they want to develop an addiction and most of us know how damaging or potentially life-threatening it can be. Yet roughly 23.5 million Americans are addicted to alcohol and drugs and in 2012, 40% of 12th graders said they’d used drugs in the past year. Even more struggle with addictions to gambling, gaming, shopping, and more. So how does this happen? What is an addiction and how does it work?

Generally, teen addiction isn’t something that happens overnight. It can start with a common curiosity toward experimentation or as a response to peer pressure. Often, substance use arises as a way to relieve the stress from a co-occurring mental disorder or challenging life circumstance. Addiction is different for teens and young adults than it is for older adults.

One way of outlining the stages that lead to teenage addiction is below. It’s important to note that the progression of this chart is not guaranteed; we are all introduced to various substances and behaviors but that does not mean we end up addicted to them.  However, the current thinking on addiction and brain chemistry is that the further one progresses on this continuum, the more likely it is that brain structure changes and the more challenging it can be to recover.  While causation isn’t guaranteed, there is a strong correlation between individuals that start experimenting with drugs at a young age and later substance use disorders and addiction.

1. Introduction

When an individual first hears about a substance or habit forming behavior. This might be from seeing parents or family members partake, or it could be from hearing about a friend’s experience. As the internet has become a more common part of our lives, we are often introduced to new substances and experiences online. The timeline for introduction can vary greatly; most children know what alcohol and gambling are at a young age and some adults have never heard of the drugs that teens and young adults take.  

Example Narrative: Hawk first saw marijuana in a music video when he was 8. He’s 16 now and his parents recently divorced. He moved to Colorado with his dad. With Colorado’s legalization of marijuana, it’s been common for him to see friends and their parents smoking.  

2. Experimentation

The first time an individual tries a substance or particular behavior. Again, this varies greatly from person to person and from substance to substance. While experimentation can sometimes be viewed as a natural, it’s important to know that some substances, like inhalants, can be fatal the first time they are used.   In NIDA’s 2015 Monitoring the Future Study, 44.7%% of high school seniors said they had used marijuana in the past year.

Example Narrative: Upon moving to Colorado, Hawk is quickly offered a joint at a friend’s house after school one day. He partakes and continues on to try marijuana in the many forms he finds available: smoking, vaporizing, and edibles.

3. Use

When an individual begins to use the substance or engage in a particular behavior on a regular basis.  An example of a culturally accepted form of use is the drug caffeine: many Americans drink coffee every single day.  Others are written prescriptions for drugs that they take on a daily basis, another culturally accepted form of drug use. During the phase of use, one’s brain chemistry may begin to change develop a strong relationship with the substance.  In teen brains, the neural connections are still being formed and substance use at this point can create pathways of reward-seeking and dependence that are easily entrenched later in life.

Example Narrative: Hawk has not been officially diagnosed, but he is struggling with some symptoms of depression and anxiety due to his parent’s divorce and the move to a new part of the country. He finds himself smoking every day when he comes home from school to “unwind” from the day.

4. Abuse

Relying on the substance to change the experience of life and resulting in detriment to one’s health.  During the abuse phase, individuals develop an unhealthy relationship to a substance or behavior. While playing a video game once in a while or even for a small amount of time every day might be fun and novel, playing for hours and hours every day to escape the stress of everyday life is not healthy. Brain chemistry changes even more, and it may become harder to refrain from the substance or activity. In adult brains, if the neural connections were made with healthy behaviors at a young age, the chemistry can still change, but it’s thought that it can be harder than in a teenage brain. In an adolescent brain, those foundational connections are still being formed and substance use at this time can result in long-lasting altered neural pathways.

Example Narrative: Hawk beings to find it harder and harder to get through the day without marijuana. He feels anxious unless he smokes, and he beings to toke up before and during school.  He isn’t able to concentrate while high and his grades begin to slip. One day he is caught with marijuana at school and he gets suspended.

5. Addiction

The inability to stop using a substance or participating in a behavior, even though the user knows it to be harmful. At this point, the brain’s wiring may have been distinctly altered to a circuitry based on reward and fulfillment possible only through the particular substance or behavior. Other people, activities, and passions that were a priority in life may be supplanted by the need for the substance and further unhealthy or risky behaviors may develop. Eventually, addiction can become so powerful that some individuals’ need for the substance or behavior overcomes their ability to care for themselves and death can result.

To understand how addiction happens within the human brain, specialists often break addiction itself into three further phases:

1. Use/ Intoxication

In this phase, an individual accesses whatever the substance or behavior might be that the addiction is anchored in.  This usually results in pleasurable feelings that are euphoric and enjoyable to the user. This could be the high that comes from smoking marijuana, the buzz from drinking or even the joy of purchasing a new pair of shoes.  In this phase, the brain learns that these “feel good” experiences are related to a particular substance or behavior.

2. Withdrawal

When the effects of the substance or experience wear off, users tend to not only NOT feel euphoric, but to feel down, sad, depressed, or anxious. The brain has become used to feeling good and without the substance or experience, it can be more difficult to access those emotions. This crash can be incredibly challenging and leads to the next phase:

3. Craving

The human brain is an incredible organ designed to solve problems and reduce stress in the most effective and efficient way possible. In the context of addiction, the body and brain identifies the stress of withdrawal and knows the easiest way to alleviate that stress is to obtain more of whatever makes it feel good. (In this case, the substance or behavior experience.) The brain and body are solving the problem of withdrawal by craving use or intoxication. At which point, the entire cycle starts over again.

The more an individual uses, the stronger the withdrawal, the stronger the craving, and the more challenging the addiction can become.   In teens and young adults, the thinking is that this cycle becomes much more deeply entrenched in the brain more quickly than in adults.

Example Narrative: Even though Hawk is aware that smoking is affecting his academic life and causes stress for his family, he is unable to stop.  He will have incredibly strong cravings he cannot suppress unless he smokes marijuana. He gets high and feels “normal” for a while. Everything seems ok. But within a few hours, he begins to feel anxious, irritable, depressed, and scared.  He knows that weed makes him feel better and he begins to crave. The cycle starts over again.


Overcoming the compulsive patterns of addiction, returning to a state of health, and refraining from the damaging substance or behavior. Recovery from addiction can be challenging, and it is possible. Rehab facilities and treatment programs use a variety of approaches to identify the underlying causes of addiction and to support rewiring the brain away from reward seeking and compulsion. Recovery is possible with the right care and support and the sooner one engages in getting support, the better the chances of returning to health.

Example Narrative: Hawk’s father has noticed his son’s challenges and he reaches out for support. Through a variety of conversations, connections, and researching, Hawk’s father finds a youth drug treatment program and enrolls his son. Hawk is resistant at first but as he participates, he discovers how marijuana has become a crutch for some deeper challenges. He learns skills to confront his cravings and he and his father attend Family Therapy sessions, creating a stronger bond and healthier family system. Hawk is able to identify his goal of becoming a music producer and he begins to work towards actualizing this dream.

Addiction is a complicated and challenging issue that can happen to anyone. Fortunately, recovery is possible for anyone too.

Do you have questions about yourself or your loved one? Are you looking for teen drug rehabilitation or a young adult drug treatment center? Call us.  Our team of professionals is available to answer questions for yourself or your loved one and support you on the road to recovery.

About the Author: At Sandstone Care, we help teens, young adults, and their families overcome challenges with substance use, addiction, and mental health conditions. We want to provide the motivation, tools, steps, and community that will produce lasting outcomes. We’ve designed our continuum of recovery programs to meet the unique needs of teens and young adults struggling with addictions to drugs, alcohol, and underlying mental health concerns such as anxiety, depression, trauma, and bipolar disorders. We have dedicated our lives and our organization to helping teens and young adults get the most out of life. This means that every aspect of our program is geared toward teens and their families. Learn more at