How Does Substance Use Disorder Happen?
Addiction doesn’t develop overnight. It is a chronic, progressive illness.
The signs of a substance use disorder can be easy to miss in the early stages, which is why many people delay seeking treatment. Understanding the five stages of addiction can help you better determine how to help a friend or family member who is showing signs of a substance use disorder.
Experimentation refers to the casual first uses of a substance. This could be a teen drinking with friends at a party or a young adult experimenting with club drugs at college. However, it’s important to remember that addiction doesn’t discriminate by age. A senior who is misusing prescription opioids by taking higher-than-normal doses or combining them with alcohol is also engaging in risky behavior.
A person might be drawn to experimentation with alcohol or drugs for many reasons:
- Peer pressure
- Unresolved past trauma
- Chronic pain
There is research to suggest that experimentation is more likely to lead to addiction when a person has close blood relatives who have struggled with substance abuse. Yet, you should not assume that genetics are destiny. A person with parents, grandparents, siblings, or other family members who have substance use disorders can make different choices. It is also possible for a person to develop a substance use disorder despite having no genetic risk factors.
2. Continued Use
Continued use simply means that a person is using the substance on a fairly regular basis. It is gradually beginning to play a more important role in their lives based on their initial motivation for using. For example, a person who was motivated by peer pressure and the desire to fit in may find that they are using substances whenever they spend time with a certain group of people. In comparison, someone self-medicating stress may be motivated to continue using when faced with big projects at work or conflicts in personal relationships.
The continued use phase can last for quite some time without causing noticeable problems. In fact, many people never progress beyond this stage.
In the simplest terms, tolerance occurs when a person requires more of a substance to achieve the same effects. For example, someone who initially felt buzzed after three or four beers may find that they need to drink a 12-pack to feel the same way if they start consuming alcohol on a daily basis.
On its own, tolerance doesn’t mean that a person has developed an addiction. Tolerance can occur with prescription medications, even if they are taken exactly as directed for a legitimate medical purpose. However, tolerance is a distinct warning sign that a more serious problem may be developing.
Dependence occurs when the body needs a specific substance to function normally. If a person is unable to use the substance, they will experience withdrawal symptoms. Withdrawal can include physical symptoms like nausea, vomiting, dizziness, sweating, or headaches, as well as psychological symptoms like mood swings, anxiety, depression, and intense cravings.
Like tolerance, it is possible for dependence to develop when a person is taking a prescription medication exactly as prescribed. However, if you suspect your loved one is developing a substance use disorder, there will likely be other warning signs by the time they’ve become physically dependent on a drug. For example:
- Changes in sleep habits
- Appetite changes (potentially with weight gain or weight loss)
- Poor personal hygiene
- Impaired memory and concentration
- Increased risk-taking behavior
- Physical aggressiveness
- Ignoring work or family responsibilities to spend more time using
- Worsening of pre-existing mental health issues
At this stage, it becomes more obvious that substance abuse has taken over a person’s life. They are struggling to maintain relationships with loved ones. Their performance at work or school has declined, and they may be experiencing financial problems due to the amount of money they are spending on addictive substances. In some cases, they may have been arrested for an offense such as drunk driving, drug possession, or shoplifting.
A person who has an active addiction is often in denial about the extent of their problem. They may insist that everything is under control and that those who express concern are overreacting. An intervention may be necessary to convince your loved one to seek treatment.
We Can Help You Overcome Substance Use Disorder
Watching someone you care about struggle with an addiction can be difficult, but it’s important to remember that effective treatment options are available. There’s always hope for recovery—even if a person has sought treatment in the past and suffered a relapse. Contact the experienced team at St. Joseph Institute for Addiction’s Pennsylvania substance abuse treatment center to learn more about what resources can help your loved one take the first steps towards a brighter future.