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Substance Use Disorder: Signs of Drug Abuse

signs of drug abuse, woman looking at computer

Questions arise when we think about the signs of drug abuse and how addiction might be affecting us or a loved one. 

  • What are the signs of drug abuse? 
  • How do I intervene in a loved one’s addiction? 
  • How can I overcome an addiction? 

The first thing you can do is work to de-stigmatize substance use by using person-centered language. You, or your loved one, are not an addict – you are a person living with substance use (note: we do not use the term abuse) disorder. 

One of the biggest barriers that people with substance use disorders face is overcoming shame. By de-stigmatizing the language around addiction – around mental health as a whole, truthfully –  we can help encourage people to seek treatment for whatever ails them. 

What is Substance Abuse or Substance Use Disorder?

Substance use disorder is a broad term that covers all substances to which one may become addicted. For our purposes today, we will be discussing the use of both legal and illicit drugs. 

When drug use begins to cause a problem in everyday life –  such as at work, school, home, or within personal relationships – it can then be defined as substance abuse or, as we mentioned previously, substance use disorder. 

Learning the signs of drug abuse is only half of the battle; the other half is understanding how to help.

Definition: Substance Abuse or Substance Use Disorder 

Substance use disorder is a condition that affects the brain as well as behavior. For many living with addiction, it’s nearly impossible to stop. Despite the negative impact that excessive drug use can have our your mental health, physical health, emotional well-being, relationships, work-life, finances, etc., you may continue to return to substance use again and again. 

For the purposes of this work today, we will simply be describing the symptoms of drug use – not diagnosing substance use disorder. 

Substance Use Disorder: DSM 5 Criteria

The Fifth Edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is the most recent revision of the American Psychiatric Association’s book that lists the names, symptoms, and diagnostic characteristics of every acknowledged mental illness. The newest edition of the manual now includes a chapter on “Substance-Related and Addictive Disorders”. 

The following is a list of criteria identified in the DSM-5 that could indicate a substance use disorder: 

  1. Imbibing substances in larger amounts or for longer than you’re supposed to (such as prescription pain killers)
  2. Not being able to reduce your use despite wanting to
  3. Experiencing cravings to use 
  4. Spending an inordinate amount of time using, procuring, or recovering from substance use
  5. Allowing substance use to negatively affect your work, home, or school life
  6. Allowing yourself to continue to use even when it affects your personal relationships 
  7. Giving up on hobbies, social activities, etc.  in order to use substances 
  8. Continuing to use despite experiencing risky or dangerous situations
  9. If you have a psychological/physical problem that could be made worse by substance use but you continue to use anyways
  10. Needing more and more of the substance to obtain the desired effects
  11. Experiencing withdrawal symptoms which are usually relieved by substance use

signs of drug abuse, tree stands alone with mountains in the back

The severity of substance use disorder is typically determined by the number of symptoms that are exhibited. 

  • Mild substance use disorder is indicated by the presence of two or three symptoms. 
  • Moderate substance use disorder is indicated by the presence of four or five symptoms. 
  • Severe substance use disorder is indicated by the presence of six or more symptoms. 

Substance Use Disorder Risk Factors

Anyone – regardless of race, age, gender, family history or background, rich or poor – can be affected by substance abuse. 

A few risk factors could include: 

  • Family history of addiction
  • Abuse (physical, mental, or emotional) 
  • Neglect 
  • Other traumatic experiences (such as a lack of attunement) 
  • Mental health disorders (such as depression and anxiety)
  • Early exposure to drug use 
  • Poverty and/or lack of economic opportunity 
  • Neighborhood violence 

Once we recognize that there is no shame in living with a substance use disorder or other mental health disorders, we can begin to understand the signs of drug abuse, the need for empathy, and for holistic treatment. 

Substance Abuse Prevention 

As mentioned previously, early exposure to drugs or early use of drugs or other substances can increase your risk of addiction. Drugs and other substances fundamentally change the brain. 

By mitigating early exposure to drugs or other substances – especially if children are going through transitional experiences such as going to high school, moving to a new area, or if there is unrest in their home – we can reduce the risks of experimentation, and subsequently, the risk of addiction. 

Additionally, we know that adverse childhood experiences (or trauma) and substance use disorders often go hand-in-hand. Experiencing trauma in your childhood – such as abuse of all kinds, tragic events, or witnessing domestic abuse – increases the likelihood that you could suffer from C-PTSD/PTSD, depression, and/or drug abuse. 

Signs of Substance Abuse 

Alcohol or drug addiction can change the way a person acts, feels, and even looks. If you observe or are exhibiting the following signs and symptoms of drug use it may be time to seek treatment. 

Physical Signs of Drug Abuse

  • Poor or declining hygiene habits 
  • Change in sleep patterns – either sleeping less or more 
  • Weight loss 
  • Bloodshot eyes 
  • Complexion changes such as acne or jaundice

Psychological Signs of Drug Abuse 

  • Mood swings or increased irritability 
  • Lack of motivation 
  • Depression and anxiety 
  • Lack of confidence or low self-esteem 

Behavioral Signs of Drug Abuse 

  • Neglecting responsibilities and obligations
  • Increased acts of conflict and insubordination
  • Poor decision making
  • Increasingly secretive behavior
  • Increased or sudden financial distress

Assisting Someone Exhibiting Signs of Drug Use 

If you have observed some of the signs of drug abuse in a loved one, you could feel hesitant about addressing your concerns. It is difficult to communicate how you feel – which is why you should work with a professional intervention specialist. The purpose of an intervention specialist is to help you plan an intervention that is safe and secure for all participants. 

After you’ve taken this action, you can talk to your loved one about treatment options. At Integrative Life Center, we offer a suite of options that includes residential treatment, partial hospitalization, and outpatient treatments. 


Contact us today for more information. 

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