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When does “social drinking” morph into a problem? How can you tell the difference between “partying” and having a complex brain disorder? Sure, no one wants to contemplate such questions when enjoying time with friends. But sometimes, your behavior is not just a phase. It’s actually far more than taking the edge off.

A diagnosis of Substance Abuse Disorder, according to the DSM-5, is “based on evidence of impaired control, social impairment, risky use, and pharmacological criteria.” What this means is that criteria exist and must be applied — even when you are certain you do not have a problem.

What is Substance Abuse?

It could involve drugs or alcohol — or both. These addictive substances can alter how your brain’s reward center works. Drugs and alcohol increase the presence of dopamine which triggers feelings of pleasure. The more you indulge, the more likely that strong cravings will commence. From there, you may begin to actively seek out more of the substances.

Whether or not this qualifies as substance abuse may depend on factors like your:
  • Age
  • Family history
  • Weight and metabolism
  • Frequency of use
  • Social environments
Common Signs of Substance Abuse Disorder
  • Frequent and severe cravings
  • Recklessly spending money to satisfy those cravings
  • Cannot stop using it even when you try
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms if and when you stop
  • Using the substance even when you recognize it negatively impacts your life
  • Developing a high tolerance for the substance and needing more to get your “reward”
  • Taking longer to recover from usage
Substance Abuse Disorder also manifests in changes that are quite noticeable to the people in your life. These may include:
  • Mood swings
  • General fatigue with occasional bursts of energy
  • Needing more sleep
  • No longer taking care of basic hygiene
  • Marked weight loss or gain
  • Skin looks unhealthy
  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Spending time with those who can provide the substances they crave
  • Being vague and avoidant when asked about their behavior
  • Withdrawing from friends and family
  • Self-isolation
How Does Addiction Happen?

People indulge in substance use for many varied reasons. Typically, they fall into these broad categories of reward-seeking:

  • Social pressure/peer pressure
  • To relieve emotional or physical pain
  • To experience a feeling of euphoria

From there, some folks have a great genetic susceptibility toward addiction. But the strongest pull is that dopamine reward. The high you experience the first time is unique — and it can leave you chasing that feeling in vain. Your highs are never quite so high. However, your lows may progressively get lower.

This chemical dynamic in your brain effectively removes the option of choice. You feel compelled to repeat — and escalate — certain behaviors just to attain even a tiny semblance of that original sensation. Unless you seek treatment, Substance Abuse Disorder will progressively worsen.

What Steps Can You Take?

In the midst of the struggle, things can seem very dark. But keep in mind that, according to the latest national surveys, over 75 percent of people with Substance Abuse Disorder do recover. Those persons asked for help and/or people in their lives urged them to seek support. Whatever path you choose — outpatient, inpatient, peer support groups, etc. — there is help available.

A powerful, proven first step is to connect with an experienced mental health practitioner. Talking with a therapist can guide you to make the kind of healthy choices you desperately need. You don’t need judgment or shame. You need a very specific kind of support — something a therapist is specifically trained to offer.

If you or someone you know has been caught up in the cycle of substance abuse, I can help. Please reach out soon to set up a free and confidential consultation for substance abuse counseling.

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