The Difference between Substance Use and Abuse

Written by Chloe Nicosia

Understanding causes of drug abuse and recognizing the connection between substance use and abuse

From caffeine to alcohol to prescription drugs, there are substances in our everyday lives that we enjoy or even give us relief, but a relationship with a substance can quickly become unhealthy. The line between substance use and abuse can sometimes seem vague and undefined, but the difference lie in the context. If you are one of the many Americans who uses a substance on a regular basis, learning to recognize the differences between responsible substance use and abuse is an important part of your responsibility to yourself and to your family.

Substance Dependence Definition

The DSM-IV substance dependence definition is “a maladaptive pattern of substance use leading to clinically significant impairment or distress” and must include at least three of seven specific features:

  • An unusually high or growing level of tolerance to the substance
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms without the presence of the substance in their system
  • Taking the substance in larger amounts and/or for longer periods than intended
  • A desire or failed efforts to stop using the drug
  • Spending significant amounts of time or money to obtain and use the substance
  • Continuing to use the substance despite negative consequences

This substance dependence definition marks clear differences between drug abuse and drug use. Responsible substance use should not cause a disruption or distress in your life, nor will it result in any of the seven factors listed.

Causes of Drug Abuse

Substance use and abuse are also separated by their causes. For instance, a safe moment of substance use may occur when someone has a glass of wine with dinner to celebrate their partner’s promotion or an anniversary. In this case, there is no maladaptive misuse of the substance, and the use of the substance is limited to a certain amount in a set period of time. Causes of drug abuse, however, are more complex. In some cases, someone may use alcohol to cope with anxiety or stress. While having a beer with friends after a long day at work is not necessarily substance abuse, it is the repeated use of the alcohol to cope with stress that may develop into an issue down the road. Self-medicating with drugs is a common starting point for addictions, as one quickly becomes dependent upon the drug as an unhealthy coping mechanism for a problem in their life. This rarely ends well as they develop a habit to reacting to stress with drinking, which is oftentimes an inappropriate reaction and creates more stressful situations, like being fired after drinking on the job to deal with stress.

Other causes of drug abuse can begin with a legitimate medication, such as a prescription for an anti-anxiety medication like Xanax or clonazepam. This kind of drug can be a miracle med for those struggling with generalized anxiety disorders, but the relief that the drug brings in conjunction with its addictive qualities can quickly lead to its over-use and dependency. These drugs, known as benzodiazepines, are especially risky to become addicted to because the withdrawal symptoms they cause can be life-threatening.

Recognizing Signs of Substance Abuse

Recognizing the warning signs of substance abuse can help you to stem off a burgeoning addiction in yourself or in a loved one. Things to look out for include:

  • Attempts to hide or downplay the substance use
  • Signs of intoxication in inappropriate situations, like family events or during work
  • Sudden lowered performance in school or at work
  • Financial struggles
  • Choosing the use of the substance over other things that they once enjoyed
  • Continued use of the substance despite negative consequences

If you or your loved one are concerned about the connection between substance use and abuse or potential causes of drug abuse, reach out and learn more by calling (800) 429-7690.