Substance abuse and addiction are terms often uniformly used to describe misuse of illicit substances; however, there are distinct differences between the two. A person who abuses drugs or alcohol may not always be addicted. Although abuse and addiction are both accompanied by a slew of negative side effects, in general, a person who abuses substances maintains some level of control, whereas, a person with an addiction is controlled by it.

Abuse vs Addiction: What’s the Difference?

Substance abuse and addiction both involve chronic misuse of substances. In cases of addiction, however, misuse often becomes excessive and a person is unable to cease use even when they are aware of the problems it is causing. Addiction implies that a person’s abuse of drugs or alcohol is more severe. Comparatively speaking, a person with an addiction tends to become dependent on a substance in order to feel “normal”. Not all cases of substance abuse evolve into addiction, but every person who struggles with addiction started with substance abuse.

Many symptoms of substance abuse and addiction are similar, but the degree in which they affect a person vary.

Symptoms of Substance Abuse

What substance abuse looks like:

  • Neglecting responsibilities for school, work, or the home – this may manifest as skipping work, failing classes, or neglecting the household
  • Intermittent changes in mood
  • Engaging in risky behaviors due to substance abuse – this may include driving under the influence or having unprotected sex
  • Legal trouble as a result of substance abuse including arrests, disorderly conduct, or stealing
    Problems in relationships with others including loss of friends, poor relationships with employers, and strained relationships with loved ones

Symptoms of Addiction

What addiction looks like:

  • Completely disengaging from hobbies or activities they once enjoyed in favor of substance use
  • Building tolerance to substances requiring a person to increase doses to achieve the same effects
  • Experiencing withdrawal when use suddenly stops and resuming use in order to make it stop
  • Continued use of substances even when they are aware of the negative consequences it produces

When Abuse Becomes Addiction

Ongoing, prolonged use of substances can lead to addiction, but not everyone who abuses substances becomes addicted. There are numerous factors that play a role in the development of addiction, including:

  • Age at which substance abuse began
  • Frequency of use and dosage
  • Family history of addiction
  • Why substances are being used

While all of these factors are substantial, a person’s motivation for using substances can play a significant role in the development of addiction. When drugs or alcohol are used as coping mechanisms for stress or mental health disorders, they are more likely to develop unhealthy habits and dependencies. Rather than utilizing healthy outlets and coping mechanisms, these substances serve as an easy escape, but they often exacerbate poor health conditions.

Those who struggle with substance abuse are often able to recognize the consequences of their actions and learn from them. In some cases, having direct, open conversations with a person struggling with substance abuse can be enough to encourage them to change their behaviors. Conversely, a person who struggles with addiction often cannot make these changes easily, even if they are aware of the negative consequences it causes. Addiction completely alters the way a person’s mind and body work, meaning that even in the direst situations, they may still be unable to change.

There is a popular misconception that ceasing substance use requires only willpower and those who continue to abuse drugs and alcohol despite the consequences simply are not trying hard enough. This myth has been debunked countless times as willpower alone cannot cure the destructive side effects of addiction. Addiction is a chemical dependence that requires medical intervention in order to achieve positive outcomes. While professional treatment may require more than one attempt, it is the most effective way to help someone struggling with addiction.

What to Do If You Suspect Someone is Struggling with Addiction

If you suspect your loved one is struggling with substance abuse or addiction, it can be a scary or confusing experience. Knowing the differences between substance abuse and addiction can help you make an informed decision regarding possible next steps.

As you evaluate your loved one’s needs, it’s important to be aware of the myths surrounding addiction and not allow those to cloud your judgement. Addiction is a disease that requires professional help to treat. This does not mean that a person struggling with addiction is entirely helpless or a victim, but it does mean that the changes occurring in their brain require medical care to treat effectively.

It is important to intervene as soon as you suspect a problem is developing. A person does not need to hit “rock bottom” before entering treatment. The longer addiction is allowed to thrive, the more damage it causes to a person’s mind, body, and spirit. You may think a person has to willingly accept help and cannot be forced into treatment; however, there are many cases in which a person may enter treatment against their will. This does not make treatment any less effective. In fact, even if they are initially resistant, gaining clarity of mind can help provide perspective and allow them to realize their need for help on their own.

It is not uncommon for a person to make several attempts at sobriety before achieving success. Do not let relapse or resistance to help stop you from investing time into helping your loved one recover from addiction. If you are not sure where to start, contacting an interventionist can help you gain perspective on the situation and provide guidance moving forward.

If you or someone you know is struggling with substance abuse or addiction, we are here to help. Give us a call at 888.855.6877 or send us a message below and one of our admissions counselors will do their best to get you the help you need.


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