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Chapter 2

Understanding Addictive Substance Use Disorder

A sad woman with her head down, sitting next to pills on a table.

Updated on

24 Apr, 2024

Understanding the dynamics of addictive substance use disorder can be a daunting and overwhelming task. It’s natural to feel helpless and uncertain about what steps to take in order to help your loved one who is struggling with addiction.

The good news is that by taking the time to educate yourself on this subject, you can better support your family member through their recovery journey towards health and well-being. Education is critical for understanding substance use disorder, addiction, and recovery.

By looking at all aspects of addiction – including its causes, effects, and treatments – you can gain insight into why this condition develops and how it affects individuals’ lives as well as those around them. Here are some important facts everyone should know to approach this challenge with informed caregiving decisions.

Recognizing Addictive Substance Use Disorder

Recognizing an addiction issue is easier when you understand the signs and symptoms. So, what is substance use disorder?

The Cleveland Clinic offers this definition:

“Substance use disorder (SUD) is a mental health condition in which a person has a problematic pattern of substance use that causes distress and/or impairs their life.”

“SUD exists on a spectrum and may be mild, moderate, or severe. It typically involves an overpowering desire to use the substance, increased tolerance to the substance, and/or withdrawal symptoms when you stop taking the substance.”

It’s crucial to remember that substance use disorder is a disease — and every disease deserves treatment. Substance abuse alters the way the brain works and encourages risky and otherwise out-of-character behavior. Even when people with a substance use disorder want to stop using, their body and brain can work against them.

Substance use disorder is distinct from a process addiction. While they share many similarities, process addiction involves addiction to a process or activity instead of a substance that alters brain activity. There are a wide range of examples, but common ones include sex addiction, gambling addiction, and eating disorders.

Substance use disorder can demonstrate itself in different ways in different people. There’s no single pattern of behavior that always indicates substance use disorder. However, there are many common symptoms of this issue.

Some symptoms may not be easily noticed by friends and family members. They may be more clear to the person struggling with substance use disorder themselves. According to the Mayo Clinic, these substance use disorder symptoms include:

  • Intense urges to use a substance that block out or take priority over other thoughts
  • Prioritizing a steady supply of the substance
  • Recognizing the potential or actual harms of use and/or wanting to stop, but continuing to use the substance
  • Feeling withdrawal symptoms when use stops
  • Using more of the substance than intended
  • Needing more of the substance over time to feel the same effects

Other symptoms can be more visible to the loved ones of a person struggling with substance use disorder. Examples include:

  • Falling behind on everyday responsibilities, like household chores
  • Issues related to reliability, attendance, and performance at work or school
  • Lack of care for personal appearance and hygiene
  • Pulling back from or canceling social activities and gatherings that the person has normally enjoyed in the past
  • Irritability, mood swings, and extreme emotions without a clear cause

By definition, substance use disorder interferes with daily life. This is important for families to recognize. Disruptions in life may be more noticeable than direct signs of drug use. That can be true depending on the substances involved and if your loved one consciously or subconsciously tries to hide the issue.

A sad man is silhouetted by the light while leaning in a hallway.

How Common is Substance Use Disorder? What are Commonly Abused Substances?

The US Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) conducts a yearly national survey on drug use and health. SAMHSA shared the results of the 2022 survey in late 2023.

The survey found that, during 2022, 48.7 million US residents ages 12 and older had a substance use disorder during the past year. It’s important to note that this data is self-reported. That means only individuals who report an issue with substance use are counted in the 48.7 million person total.

Based on the same survey, the most commonly abused substance is alcohol. 29.5 million people reported having alcohol use disorder. A slightly smaller number of people, 27.5 million, reported having a drug use disorder.

Although they aren’t listed in the survey, other commonly abused substances include:

Substance Use Disorder vs. Addiction: What’s the Difference?

Addiction and substance use disorder are closely related, although they’re not exactly the same. The Partnership to End Addiction shares one way of distinguishing between the two. Specifically, Addiction is often used to refer to extreme or severe substance use disorder.

At Infinite Recovery, we believe that addiction is a more comprehensive and holistic way to view substance use disorder. Treating addiction means treating the substance use disorder along with other mental health issues, which can influence substance use.

Taking overall mental health into account, along with related biological, environmental, and psychological factors, helps to build a treatment plan tailored to an individual and their long-term success.

An addiction recovery model focuses on all aspects of well-being. We believe it offers more complete support than substance use disorder treatment that focuses only on the chemical aspect of substance use disorder.

A cheerful man speaks during a group therapy session.

How Addictive Substance Use Disorder Affects Individuals

Substance use disorder has a wide range of mental and physical effects on individuals. Additionally, it can have a negative influence on family members and friends. Let’s look more closely at each of these categories of effects.

Physical Effects of Substance Use Disorder

Substance use disorder includes a wide range of legal and illicit substances. Alcohol, tobacco, misused prescription medication, and illegal drugs can all be the substance involved.

That means the exact physical effects vary greatly depending on the substance involved. For example, Medical News Today explains that short-term physical effects of alcohol can include coordination issues, facial flushing, and nausea and vomiting. Amphetamines, meanwhile, can cause a decreased appetite, increased wakefulness, and a higher body temperature. Both can cause an increased heart rate.

The one common factor across these many substances is that heavy, regular use can cause serious short- and long-term side effects. Depending on the specific substance, organ damage, stroke, nutritional deficiencies, infection, and even death through overdose can occur.

Psychological Effects of Substance Use Disorder

Regular use of substances in the context of substance use disorder can alter the brain. Dopamine is a “reward chemical,” released when we do something that pleases us. Substance use can cause substantial dopamine release, to the point where it changes neurological pathways and everyday behavior.

People dealing with substance use disorder can become more motivated to use substances and less motivated to engage in other activities they enjoyed in the past. This is a crucial fact to keep in mind about substance use disorder.

It’s also important to note that substance use disorder and many substances can make existing mental health issues worse. They may also influence the development of new mental health issues.

Drug use by itself may cause confusion, altered mood, reduced inhibition, increases in risky behavior, and more.

The peer-reviewed journal Drug and Alcohol Review published research that found cognitive impairment is common in patients with substance use disorder. Cognitive impairment includes issues with learning, remembering, completing complex tasks, and decision-making.

Substance Use Disorder: The Impact on Families

Substance use disorder has a complex and broadly negative impact on family members and friends.

Symptoms such as prioritizing the purchase of drugs can lead a person with this disorder to steal from loved ones, for example. Trust can be broken when an afflicted friend or family member lies about stealing, drug use in general, or to hide the cause of related concerns. Children of people with substance use disorder may have their developmental needs disregarded.

Direct economic, emotional, and physical impacts can all be caused by substance use disorder. These can lead to strained or broken relationships, additional emotional burden for loved ones, and other negative outcomes.

The Importance of Education for Families Dealing With Substance Use Disorder

Remember that substance use disorder is a disease, and it’s important to support the person who’s struggling with this serious issue.

However, family members also need to set healthy boundaries and reasonable expectations. Supporting the person does not mean supporting their harmful behavior. Setting clear and healthy boundaries can help to protect family and friends from the damage substance use disorder can cause.

Education about addiction in general is a crucial step to better understanding and dealing with this issue with a friend or family member.

Learning about the disease model of addiction is a great place to start. The Partnership to End Addiction shares a detailed explanation.

Learning about the patterns associated with addiction, something we’ll cover in the next section, can help to identify an issue as well. Education also helps us understand how to effectively and compassionately treat substance use disorder.

It’s important to know not only what substance use disorder looks like, but that there’s hope for managing this disease and moving forward as well. It also helps to understand that support is available for family members.

Infinite Recovery is committed to helping families whose loved ones seek treatment. We pride ourselves on offering weekly support groups for families, a monthly family workshop, and referrals to local therapists for family members.

A woman comforts a man during a group therapy session.

Recognizing Addictive Substance Use Disorder

We noted earlier that one symptom of substance use disorder is continuing to use despite recognizing the harms and wanting to stop. That means loved ones often take the lead in encouraging a person with substance use disorder to seek treatment.

Recognizing the signs of substance use disorder can make it easier to tell if a friend or family member may be struggling with this disease. We’ve already reviewed substance use disorder symptoms. So, let’s take a look at potential signs of substance use disorder from a more practical perspective. These include:

  • Physical changes. Many substances can cause changes in appearance, like bloodshot eyes. Abnormally small or large pupils may also indicate substance use. They might lose weight, gain weight, have pallid skin, or have other noticeable changes.
  • Changes in personality and mental acuity. Substance use disorder can cause people to seem more difficult or less involved in daily life and cause cognitive issues as well.
  • Changes in personal hygiene. People dealing with substance use disorder may neglect their personal hygiene and wear dirty or tattered clothing.
  • Increased need for privacy. Substance use disorder can drive people away from family and friends to spend time finding, using, and recovering from using substances.
  • Unexplained or unclear financial issues. The cost of many substances can disrupt a person’s finances and cause them to ask for money without a clear or logical cause.
  • Issues at work or school. Work or school can become a lower priority due to substance use disorder. This can appear as worsening performance, disciplinary issues, and more.
  • Pulling back from activities, hobbies, and social time. As substances become an increasingly high priority, activities people traditionally enjoy can take a backseat to the disorder.
  • Changes in friends and where they spend time. The compulsive need to get and use substances can influence friend groups and where people with this disorder spend their time.

Helping a Loved One With Substance Use Disorder

Substance use disorder can be hard to deal with, both for individuals experiencing it and their loved ones. Remember that evidence-based, compassionate, and individualized treatment is available.

Substance abuse is a complex concern, but it is by no means untreatable. It’s accessible, too. Many health insurance plans cover substance use disorder treatment. Infinite Recovery is in network with every major health insurance company.

Infinite Recovery takes a holistic approach to helping individuals with substance use disorder work toward sobriety. We compassionately address the chemical dependency, emotional, and behavioral issues that contribute to addiction. Crucially, we also prioritize helping families learn and heal.

Ready to transform your life or help a loved one? Reach out to us today.

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