What is Substance Abuse?

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Substance abuse describes the use of illegal drugs or the misuse of legal drugs that causes problems with a person’s day-to-day activities, work, relationships, and life in general. More than 20 million people in the U.S. were diagnosed with substance use disorder last year.

Understanding Substance Use Disorder

Substance use disorder is the mental health diagnosis for someone who abuses substances. The diagnosis is given to someone who can’t control their use of drugs or alcohol. Symptoms of substance use disorder include:

  • Taking more of a drug than advised or taking it for longer than advised
  • Wanting to cut down on using the substance but not being able to
  • Spending a large amount of time planning to use, getting, using, or recovering from using the substance
  • Having cravings to use the substance
  • Being unable to manage daily obligations such as expectations of school, work, or home life because of substance use
  • Promising yourself or others that you won’t use substances and being unable to keep that promise
  • Using the substance even when it interferes with relationships
  • Giving up recreational or social obligations because of the substance use
  • Continuing to use the substance even if it’s putting you or your health or employment in danger
  • Needing to use more of the substance to get the desired effect
  • Developing withdrawal symptoms when not using the substance

The most commonly abused substances include alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, prescription medications, methamphetamines, and hallucinogens.

Risk Factors for Substance Abuse

Multiple factors contribute to the likelihood someone will experience a substance use disorder. These include Adverse Childhood Experiences, environmental stressors, genetic factors, unresolved trauma, and social pressure. But experiencing some of these risk factors doesn’t mean a person will develop a substance use disorder. It’s also possible for someone to experience a substance use disorder without any of these risk factors.

  • Adverse Childhood Experiences – ACEs are stressful or traumatic events that occur during childhood. These experiences include a death in the family, abuse, neglect, divorce, a family member in jail, a family member experiencing a mental health disorder, or witnessing domestic violence. Adults who experienced more ACEs as children are more likely to experience substance use disorders.
  • Environmental Stressors – When people talk about their reasons for using a substance, they often cite stress as a cause. Pressure can change a person’s brain and physiology. Environmental stressors could include poverty, homelessness, or abuse in the household. These stressors are linked to an increased likelihood of developing a substance use disorder.
  • Genetic Vulnerability – There may be a genetic component to substance abuse that’s inherited or passed down from parent to child.
  • Trauma – Unresolved trauma may result in people using drugs or alcohol to get relief from traumatic memories. People repeat this process until it becomes an addiction.
  • Social Pressure – The influence of social pressure can be overwhelming, especially in the adolescent and young adult years. A person can feel left out or isolated if they don’t use substances when it seems like their peers are all doing so. The desire to feel included within social groups can be a risk factor in using substances.

Treatment for Substance Abuse

Treatment for a person dealing with a substance use disorder varies depending on their specific needs. Popular treatment options include:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy – CBT focuses on thoughts and behaviors as ways to heal. This type of treatment can involve disrupting negative thought patterns, skills training, rewarding positive behavior, or developing more positive coping mechanisms for dealing with stress.
  • Dialectical Behavior Therapy – DBT focuses on the motivation for change, enhancing a person’s abilities for change, and structuring the environment to introduce and generalize new behaviors. It enhances a person’s ability to change behaviors, thoughts, and patterns while simultaneously accepting the parts they can’t.
  • Holistic Therapies – Holistic approaches to treating substance use disorders include meditation, yoga, acupuncture, herbal medicines, and other techniques to healing that are not considered traditional. These approaches can be beneficial for people when used in combination with therapy. They can also be activities a person can focus on to support their healing from a substance use disorder.

There are numerous treatment options available for those dealing with substance use disorders. You don’t have to continue letting substances control your life. Use All Counseling’s therapist directory to find a counselor to help you on your road to healing and recovery.


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