Substance Use Disorder - Signs, Symptoms and Causes

Substance abuse
Substance Use Disorder
  • Aspire
  • Substance Use DisorderBlog

Have you ever worried that you or someone you care about might have a problem with drugs or alcohol? It’s a common concern. Millions of people struggle with substance use disorders, but many don’t recognize the warning signs until the problem has spiraled out of control.

In this article, we’ll dive deep into the world of addiction to help you understand what substance use disorders look like, the symptoms to watch for, and the underlying causes that drive people to abuse drugs and alcohol. 

By the end, you’ll be armed with the knowledge you need to spot trouble early and get help for yourself or a loved one. 

Let’s get started.


What is Substance Use Disorder?

First, let’s define our terms. 

A substance use disorder, or SUD for short, is a medical condition where the use of one or more substances leads to significant problems in a person’s life. Those substances could be:

  • Alcohol
  • Illegal drugs like heroin or cocaine
  • Misused prescription medication like opioid painkillers or ADHD drugs
  • Cannabis (in some cases)

And those significant problems could look like:

  • Damaged relationships
  • Trouble at work or school
  • Financial issues
  • Legal troubles
  • Health problems

In short, if using drugs or alcohol is messing up your life, there’s a good chance you have a substance use disorder. Of course, it’s not always so cut and dry. Addiction exists on a spectrum and can be tricky to self-diagnose. Let’s take a closer look at how to spot the signs and symptoms.

Signs & Symptoms of Substance Use Disorders

Signs and symptoms of substance use disorder

So how do you know if you or a loved one’s substance use has crossed the line into addiction? Here are some of the most common warning signs of substance use disorder:

1. Using More Than Planned

One of the earliest red flags is using more of a substance than you intended to. Maybe you told yourself you’d only have one drink but ended up drinking the whole six-pack. Or you planned to use a drug just once but found yourself going back for more and more.

This loss of control is a hallmark of addiction. Your brain gets so used to the flood of feel-good chemicals that it starts to crave the substance, overriding your best intentions.

2. Unsuccessful Attempts to Cut Back

Have you ever tried to cut back on your drinking or drug use but just couldn’t seem to make it stick? Maybe you wake up every morning vowing to quit, only to find yourself using again by nighttime.

Difficulty cutting back is another big warning sign. It shows that the addiction has taken hold and is starting to call the shots. Even if you want to stop, your brain has been hijacked and makes it feel impossible.

3. Spending Lots of Time & Energy Using

Take a look at how you spend your days. Do your thoughts constantly revolve around the next time you’ll be able to drink or use? Do you spend tons of time planning how to get the substance, using it, and then recovering from the effects?

As addiction grows, it tends to consume more and more of your life. The substance becomes your top priority, pushing other things you care about to the sidelines. This is one of the key symptoms of substance use disorder.

4. Neglecting Responsibilities

Has your job performance started to slip because of your substance use? Are you missing classes or deadlines? Neglecting your kids or your household duties? Letting loved ones down and relationships fall apart?

When you’re battling addiction, it’s easy for responsibilities to fall by the wayside. The compulsion to use trumps everything else, even the most important parts of your life.

5. Dangerous Use

Substance use becomes especially concerning when it puts you in harm’s way. Some examples of dangerous use include:

  • Driving under the influence
  • Having unprotected sex
  • Using dirty needles
  • Combining multiple substances
  • Using to the point of passing out

The more risky behaviors stack up, the more likely it is that there’s a serious problem at play, particularly when it comes to signs of substance abuse in adolescence.

6. Social & Legal Issues

As addiction escalates, it’s common for people to start having troubles with friends, family, coworkers, or even the law. You might:

  • Get in fights with loved ones about your substance use
  • Lose friends or damage relationships
  • Face problems at work like warnings, demotions, or firing
  • Get in legal hot water for things like possession, DUIs, or theft

Substance use disorders have a way of touching every corner of your life as they progress. When your social world and standing are crumbling, it’s a glaring sign that addiction has taken over.

7. Tolerance & Withdrawal

Finally, as substance use disorders get more severe, you’ll start to see the hallmark symptoms of tolerance and withdrawal:

  • Tolerance: Over time, you need more and more of the substance to get the same effects. Your usual dose just doesn’t do it for you anymore.
  • Withdrawal: When the substance starts to wear off, you feel awful. Depending on the drug, withdrawal can involve symptoms like nausea, shaking, headaches, or even seizures.

Tolerance and withdrawal are surefire signs of addiction. They mean your brain and body have grown dependent on the substance to function.

Of course, not everyone will experience all of these symptoms. Addiction can look different for different people. But if you’re noticing several of these signs in yourself or someone you care about, it’s worth taking a closer look.

Other Physical Signs & Symptoms

In addition to the behavioral and psychological symptoms discussed above, substance use disorders can also cause a range of physical symptoms. Some common physical signs of substance abuse include:

  • Bloodshot eyes or dilated pupils
  • Changes in appetite or sleep patterns
  • Sudden weight loss or gain
  • Deterioration of physical appearance and grooming habits
  • Unusual smells on breath, body, or clothing
  • Tremors, slurred speech, or impaired coordination

These physical symptoms can vary depending on the specific substance being abused. For example, stimulants like cocaine or methamphetamine may cause dilated pupils, hyperactivity, and rapid heartbeat, while opioids like heroin may cause constricted pupils, drowsiness, and slowed breathing.

It’s important to note that the presence of these physical symptoms alone doesn’t necessarily mean someone has a substance use disorder. Many of these signs can have other causes. However, when combined with the behavioral and psychological symptoms discussed earlier, they can paint a clearer picture of a potential problem.

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Causes of Substance Use Disorders

Causes of substance abuse

Now that we know how to spot substance use disorders, let’s talk about what substance use disorder causes in the first place. Why do some people get addicted while others can take or leave substances?


First, genetics play a big role. Research shows that addiction tends to run in families. If your parent or sibling has a substance use disorder, you’re at higher risk of developing one too.

This isn’t a simple cause-and-effect relationship. There’s no single “addiction gene.” But the genes you inherit from your family influence things like:

  • How your brain responds to drugs and alcohol
  • Your personality traits and temperament
  • Your risk for other mental health issues like depression or anxiety

So while genes aren’t destiny, they can definitely load the dice and make addiction more likely.


Your environment matters too, and it’s another one of the key substance use disorder causes. This includes things like:

  • Your home life and relationships
  • Your friends and social circle
  • Stress and trauma you’ve faced
  • Access to drugs and alcohol in your community
  • Cultural norms and attitudes about substance use

People who grow up in poverty, around a lot of substance use, or dealing with abuse, neglect, or other trauma are more vulnerable to addiction later on. Your environment can shape how you view drugs and alcohol and your opportunities to use them.

Mental Health

Mental health problems often go hand-in-hand with addiction. Many people use substances to cope with painful emotions, quiet anxious thoughts, or escape trauma memories. Drugs and alcohol can seem to help in the short-term, but over time, substance use just makes mental health issues worse.

Some of the most common mental health problems linked to addiction include:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety disorders like generalized anxiety or panic disorder
  • PTSD
  • Personality disorders
  • ADHD
  • Bipolar disorder

It becomes a vicious cycle. Substance use makes mental illness worse, and in turn, mental illness makes substance use harder to quit. That’s why getting help for both addiction and any underlying mental health issues is so important.

Early Use

Another one of the key substance use disorder causes is early use of drugs or alcohol. The younger someone is when they start using substances, the more likely they are to develop an addiction later in life. This is because the adolescent brain is still developing and is more vulnerable to the effects of drugs and alcohol.

Research shows that people who start drinking before age 15 are six times more likely to develop alcohol dependence or abuse later in life than those who begin drinking at or after age 21. Similarly, using drugs at an early age is a major risk factor for addiction.

This is why prevention efforts often focus on delaying the age at which young people first experiment with substances. The longer someone can delay that first use, the lower their risk for addiction.


Chronic pain is another big driver of addiction, especially to opioids. When you’re constantly hurting, it’s natural to want relief. Pain medications can provide that relief, but they’re also highly addictive.

Many people start taking opioids as prescribed by a doctor after an injury or surgery. But as their body gets used to the pills and starts needing higher doses for pain control, addiction can quickly take hold.

Treating pain and addiction together is crucial. Without alternative ways to cope with pain, it’s incredibly difficult to stop relying on drugs.

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Getting Help

If you’ve made it this far and think you or someone you care about might have a substance use disorder, the next step is getting help. Addiction is a powerful disease, but it’s also treatable. With the right support, change is possible.

Drug addicted patient getting consulted with the doctor

Here are the key steps to getting help and understanding what is the treatment for substance use disorder:

1. Reach Out

Talk to someone you trust about what you’re struggling with. This could be a friend, family member, doctor, or therapist. Just saying the words out loud can be a huge relief and a crucial first step.

2. Consider Professional Treatment

For many people, professional addiction treatment is necessary to break the cycle. This could mean:

  • Detoxing under medical supervision
  • Inpatient or residential rehab
  • Outpatient therapy and support groups
  • Medication to help manage cravings and withdrawal

A doctor or addiction specialist can help you figure out what level of care is right for you.

3. Address Co-Occurring Issues

As you treat the addiction, don’t forget about any underlying mental health problems or chronic pain. To stay sober for the long haul, it’s important to treat these issues too. This might mean therapy, medication, or other coping strategies.

4. Build a Support Network

Recovery is a lot easier with support. Consider joining a 12-step group like Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous, or seek out other peer support groups in your area. Surround yourself with people who understand addiction and want to see you succeed.

5. Make Lifestyle Changes

Finally, think about ways to build a life that supports your recovery. This could mean:

  • Avoiding triggers like certain people, places, or situations
  • Developing new hobbies and interests
  • Practicing stress-management techniques
  • Eating well, exercising, and prioritizing sleep
  • Finding purpose and meaning in your life

Embracing these healthy habits can help you stay sober for the long haul.

The Bottom Line

A group of persons enjoying after getting treated for substance abuse

If there’s one thing we hope you take away from this article, it’s this: Substance use disorders are common, and they’re treatable. No matter how hopeless things might feel right now, recovery is always possible.

The first step is recognizing the signs and symptoms in yourself or someone you care about. Then, it’s about reaching out, getting help, and doing the hard work of building a life in recovery.

Remember, you don’t have to do this alone. There are people and resources ready to support you every step of the way. With commitment, support, and self-compassion, a healthier, happier life is within reach.

Are you or a loved one struggling with substance use? 

Take the first step towards a brighter future with Aspire Recovery Center of Frisco’s tailored substance use treatment programs. Our compassionate team offers three levels of care to support your unique recovery journey: Partial Hospitalization Program (PHP), Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP), and Supportive Outpatient Program (SOP).

Call us now at 469-249-9363 or email to learn more about our transformative outpatient treatment programs and begin your journey to lasting recovery.

Don’t wait another day and start on the path to healing now. 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

1. What’s the difference between substance use and addiction?

Substance use falls on a spectrum, with addiction at the severe end. Many people are able to use substances occasionally without major problems. But when substance use starts causing significant impairment and distress, it crosses the line into a substance use disorder.

2. Can you recover from a substance use disorder without professional treatment?

Some people are able to recover on their own, but for most, professional treatment is necessary. Addiction changes the brain in powerful ways, and professional support can make the process of rewiring those pathways much easier. It’s especially important to seek professional help if you have a severe addiction, have struggled to quit on your own, or have a co-occurring mental health issue.

3. How do I know what type of treatment is right for me?

The type of treatment that’s right for you depends on factors like the severity of your addiction, your substance of choice, any co-occurring mental or physical health issues, and your personal preferences and circumstances. An addiction specialist can give you a full assessment and recommend a personalized treatment plan.

4. Will I have to take medication?

Medication can be a valuable tool in treating addiction, but it’s not always necessary. Some people do well with therapy and lifestyle changes alone. However, medication can help with things like easing withdrawal symptoms, reducing cravings, and treating co-occurring issues like depression or anxiety. Your treatment team can help you weigh the pros and cons.

5. How long does treatment take?

The length of treatment varies depending on the person and the program, but most experts recommend at least 90 days for the best chances of success. Some people need longer-term or even lifelong support. Recovery is a process, not an event, so it’s important to think of treatment as just the beginning of the journey.

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