What Is Substance Use Disorder?

Learn about substance use disorders and what treatment options are available for you or your loved ones.

Substance Use Disorders

Substance use disorders (SUDs) refer to disorders associated with the inability to stop using drugs on one’s own. SUDs generally apply to all types of drug use disorders, and these disorders can have long-lasting consequences for people who find themselves reliant on certain substances.

Treatment for substance use disorders is highly effective, providing one is willing to accept the help of a treatment program and commit themselves to living a life in recovery.

Substance Use Disorder

Substance Use Disorder

The National Institute of Mental Health defines substance use disorder as a disorder that affects one’s overall behavior as well as their brain, leading to uncontrolled substance use.1

This use can include illegal or legal drugs, prescription medications, or alcohol. Like many other mental disorders, a substance use disorder can be mild, moderate, or severe, and can produce different levels of adverse symptoms as a result.

Understanding Substance Use Disorders

Substance Use Disorder Statistics

Data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health shows a concerning prevalence of substance use disorders. In 2019: 2

  • Over 19 million people had a substance use disorder, which is 7.8% of the adult population of the United States.
  • 14.1% of people aged 18 to 25 had a substance use disorder.
  • Only 1.5% of people with a disorder received substance use treatment.
  • 21.4% of people aged 12 or older used illicit drugs during the year.

The prevalence of substance use disorders and the comparatively low rate of receiving treatment has tangible consequences. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over 100,000 overdose deaths have occurred in the last year. 3

This number represents the most overdose deaths in a year since the CDC began collecting this information and shows the human cost of substance use disorders.

Substance Use Disorder vs. Addiction

Substance Use Disorder vs. Addiction
In general, substance abuse disorder and addiction refer to the same phenomenon, but there are a few key differences. Addiction is an umbrella term that refers to compulsive activities and is commonly referred to as a chronic, relapsing brain disease that prevents people from being able to stop on their own.

Substance use disorders are also addictions, but not all addictions are substance use disorders. It is important to know the distinction between the two in order to be able to hone in on the best potential treatment options.

Non-Substance Related Addiction Examples

For example, it is common to refer to pathological gambling as an addiction, but it isn’t a substance addiction. There are other types of non-substance related addictions as well, including:

  • Kleptomania
  • Sex addiction
  • Video game addiction
  • Social media addiction
  • Binge eating disorders

The distinction is that substance use disorders involve somehow ingesting a substance that alters one’s mood or behaviors. Other addictions or compulsions are just as habitual, but do not pose changes in the body’s chemical overall composition, as they do not involve consuming illicit substances.

Commonly Used Substances

All manner of substances can lead to a substance use disorder. People may use only one substance or develop a disorder to several substances simultaneously, a condition that’s referred to as polysubstance use.


Alcohol is by far the most commonly abused drug in the United States. Alcohol use is completely legal and even socially acceptable, which is what tends to make it so dangerous for so many different people.

Consumption of alcohol is typically used as a social lubricant, an “enhancement” drug, or to manage stress or anxiety. Unlike other drug use disorders, alcohol use disorders typically take a longer time to show the extreme side effects of problematic use, particularly for men.

Dangers of Alcohol Use Disorder

Alcohol use disorder is particularly dangerous for three key reasons:

  • Intoxication from alcohol can lead people to make dangerous choices, such as driving under the influence.
  • Sustained alcohol use can cause severe and irreparable damage to the brain and liver.
  • Withdrawal from alcohol use can cause life-threatening seizures and needs to be done under the care of medical professionals.

The widespread availability and acceptability of alcohol use pose significant barriers to recovery, but this condition can be treated with the help of an alcohol treatment center.


Opioids are the class of drugs that include prescription medications, such as hydrocodone, oxycodone, and morphine, as well as illicit drugs such as heroin.

While opioid use dropped from 2018 to 2019, overdose deaths have increased dramatically. This increase is largely due to the introduction of the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl to the United States.

Dangers of Opioid Use

Fentanyl is eighty times more powerful than morphine, and even small amounts can quickly lead to a drug overdose.4

One of the key dangers of this substance is that it is often cut into other drugs without the user’s knowledge. Fentanyl is mixed with heroin, cocaine, or “pressed pills” designed to look like prescription medications.

Opioids are a central nervous system depressant and are typically used because they create intense feelings of euphoria and relaxation. When taken repeatedly, this can quickly lead to substance abuse and painful withdrawal symptoms when use is suddenly stopped. The withdrawal symptoms of opioids cause the opposite effect of the drug itself: euphoria becomes depression, and relaxation becomes anxiety and stress.


Stimulant drugs include cocaine, methamphetamines, ecstasy, and prescription amphetamines such as Adderall or Vyvanse. These drugs create an intense burst of euphoria and energy when misused and often result in bouts of insomnia as well.

Unlike the other drugs described, stimulant drugs excite the central nervous system. They cause the user to heat up, gain a sense of restless energy, and can lead them to be even more social. Yet when drug use stops, the opposite effects return, and people feel depressed, tired, and drained.

Effects of Stimulant Consumption

Prolonged use or large quantities of stimulant drugs can also lead to feelings of paranoia, produce auditory or visual hallucinations, and stifle the user’s appetite. These effects can lead to severe social and physical problems.


Hallucinogens are a unique class of drugs that cause the user to experience intense hallucinations. This class of drugs includes:
  • LSD
  • Magic mushrooms (psilocybin)
  • Ayahuasca
  • DMT
  • Mescaline
The exact neurological effects of hallucinogenic drugs are not clearly understood, but it is thought that they affect the brain’s serotonin receptors in such a way that they produce extreme hallucinatory effects. Users may see or hear things that aren’t there and may behave in ways that put them in danger.

Dangers of Hallucinogens


Cannabis is the most widely used illicit drug, though many states have begun to legalize its recreational use. The active chemical contained within the cannabis plant, THC, is hallucinogenic, though its effects are typically much weaker than drugs in that class.

People use marijuana to socialize, relax, as an appetite stimulant, or to help with sleep. The physical consequences of this drug are mild compared to opiates or alcohol, but smoking marijuana can cause serious damage to the lungs.


Tobacco use is still prevalent in the United States, though its consumption rates have dropped significantly. This decrease is largely due to the public understanding of the extreme health consequences of consuming tobacco regularly.

Nicotine, the active chemical in the tobacco plant, is extremely addictive. Long-term users often report that tobacco helps them to calm down and relieve anxiety, but this is likely the result of curing tobacco withdrawal — not the effect of the drug itself.

Other SUDs

There are several other common substances that are commonly abused. Other SUDs include:

  • Inhalant use disorder (nitrous oxide, whip-its, poppers, glue, etc.)
  • Benzodiazepine use disorder (Xanax, Valium, or Klonopin)
  • Research chemicals5 (bath salts, 2-CB, tryptamines, phenethylamine)
  • Dissociative use disorder (DXM, PCP, ketamine)

Any substance that reinforces problematic use can result in a SUD, and new drugs will continue to be discovered that can lead to addiction.

Substance Use Disorder Causes and Risk Factors

SUDs can affect anyone. They are not a moral failing, nor are they a matter of choice. Several things can lead to substance use disorder, and several more factors put people at increased risk.

What Causes Substance Use Disorder?

There is no one cause for all substance use disorders, but there are a few common trends that can predict future substance problems. The most pervasive cause is using substances as a means of coping with mental health problems, which is known as the “self-medication hypothesis.”

This belief can be seen clearly in people with PTSD. Those with PTSD deal with frequent symptoms of anxiety, stress, and hypervigilance, and many turn to substance use as a means of coping. As a result, people with PTSD are much more likely to develop a substance use disorder.6

This path is just one example of how a substance use disorder diagnosis can be caused, but there are countless paths to developing a SUD.

Risk Factors for Substance Use Disorder

The biggest risk factor for developing an SUD is genetics. Addiction is hereditary, meaning someone is much more likely to develop a substance use disorder if it runs in their family. This connection isn’t just about learned behavior, either: studies on twins separated at birth show that genetics is the key driving factor in developing a SUD diagnosis.
Other risk factors for substance use disorder include:7

  • Poverty
  • Impulsivity
  • Trauma
  • Adverse childhood experiences
  • Low academic achievement
  • Mental health disorders

Some of these risk factors can be tempered with support from family, schools, or other institutions.

Signs and Symptoms of Substance Use Disorder

SUD symptoms are common across all different types of drugs. While each specific drug may show different signs of intoxication, they often result in the same behaviors, patterns, and consequences.

Common Symptoms of SUD

Common symptoms include:8

  • Increased tolerance for drugs
  • Withdrawal symptoms if drug use suddenly stops
  • Cravings or intense thoughts or impulses to return to drug use
  • Frequent failed attempts to stop using by oneself
  • Loss of interest in hobbies or activities outside of substance use
  • Continued use despite social or personal consequences
  • Using for longer periods or in greater amounts than planned
  • A great deal of time spent using drugs, seeking drugs, or recovering from drug use

If you or a loved one is experiencing any of these signs, it might be time to seek help from a substance use disorder treatment program. Displaying just two of these symptoms means it is likely that you might meet the criteria for a substance use disorder diagnosis.

Substance Use Disorder Treatment

Seeking care with a professional addiction treatment program is highly effective for SUDs. Substance use disorder treatment takes a multi-pronged approach to helping people overcome the physical, mental, and social consequences of SUDs.

Fundamentals of Substance Use Treatment


The first step in addiction treatment begins at a medical detoxification center. This step typically begins with a substance use disorder assessment, followed by intensive medical care. A detox can help one overcome the severe effects of substance withdrawal and ease the transition into abstinence.

Medication for substance use disorder withdrawal can substantially reduce or even eliminate many of the effects.

Behavioral Therapies

Following detox, attending a program for addiction treatment with comprehensive behavioral therapies is highly recommended. Simple abstinence is not generally enough for long-term recovery, and people must prepare themselves to deal with cravings and behavioral problems associated with addiction.

Substance Use Disorder Therapies

Therapies for substance use disorder include:

These treatments can help change self-destructive thought patterns and develop the tools needed to achieve long-term recovery.


Medication for SUDs can often be tremendously helpful as well. Several different medicines are shown to reduce relapse rates, improve quality of life, and help people achieve long-term abstinence.

Substance Use Disorder Prevention and Coping

It’s much easier to prevent SUDs than it is to treat them, and there are several things that parents can do to help prevent SUDs in their children.

How to Prevent SUDs in Children and Teenagers

The most important way to prevent drug use disorders is an active parenting style, where parents are frequently involved with their children.9

Frequent parental or family engagement can protect children and teenagers from going on to develop a substance use disorder, and supporting your child will help them to learn healthy coping mechanisms outside of substance use.

How to Cope with SUDs

After a substance use disorder has been identified, seecking treatment from addiction professionals is the best path to coping with the disorder.

Consult a Substance Use Disorder Counselor

Consulting with a substance use counselor can help teach people coping mechanisms to resist returning to substance use and provide a space to treat the underlying cause of the substance misuse.

Substance use counselors can work privately or as part of an addiction treatment center and dedicate themselves to helping people overcome addiction.

Seek Treatment for Co-occurring Other Disorders

Almost one in five people with a substance use disorder have a co-occurring mental illness. Treating other mental health disorders could improve overall quality of life while simultaneously helping one to overcome a substance use disorder.10

Join a Support Group

There are countless support groups dedicated to helping people overcome substance addiction. These include:

These groups focus on building a supportive network of peers with similar experiences and are incredibly effective at helping people reach recovery.

Treatment for Substance Use Disorder at Essence Healthcare

If you or a loved one are suffering the effects of a substance use disorder, the time to seek treatment is now. Seeking professional addiction treatment services at Essence Healthcare can help you overcome SUDs quickly, with customized treatment protocols and instant access to services.

Substance Use Disorder

Substance Use Disorder Treatment Plan at Essence Healthcare

Essence Healthcare focuses on making individualized treatment plans for each of our patients. From detox to aftercare, we ensure that everyone can get the treatment they need when they need it.

By incorporating the principles of recovery programs alongside the best evidence-based treatment options available, we emphasize making recovery easy to understand and reachable for all.

Request an Appointment at Essence Healthcare

If you’re ready to start the road to recovery, contact the team at Essence Healthcare today. Addiction can make it seem impossible to stop using, but you don’t have to do it alone. Our team of addiction specialists can show you the way and support you in every step of the journey.

Table of Contents

Questions About Treatment?

Our team is standing by to address your questions. Your call is confidential and no obligation is required.