Alcohol, prescription medicines, and other illegal substances can be easily abused. When a pattern occurs of one or more of these things being used so much or so often that it begins to cause significant problems or distress, this is known as substance abuse, or substance use disorder. Abusing drugs or alcohol can impair judgement and cause problems in everyday life. This could be using substances in dangerous situations, missing work or school, legal problems, or causing bigger problems in your personal or family relationships. Substance abuse also causes changes in the way your brain works. Research has shown that the brain of a person who struggles with addiction responds to “choice” and “free will” differently than those who do not struggle with addiction. Substance abuse, or the abuse of illicit substances or medications, can appear to be casual in certain settings, but can quickly lead to addiction. For many years, addiction was not classified as a disease until alcoholism was recognized as an illness by the American Medical Association (AMA) in 1956. Addiction then followed in 1987. Though there are still people and medical professionals alike who do not believe that addiction is a disease, the science has been endorsed by the AMA and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Diseases require treatment and long-term care and support to reach recovery and even then, recovery from addiction can be a life-long fight. The misuse of these substances can be the first step into developing an addiction.  

What is the Difference Between Substance Abuse and Addiction?

Substance Abuse

Substance Abuse is the overindulgence in an addictive substance, like drugs or alcohol. This can be the experimental use of hallucinogens, cocaine, opioids or methamphetamines, or the excessive use of alcohol, cannabis, or prescription drugs that begin to change the composition of your brain. For example, opioids affect the part of your brain that controls breathing, which can cause seizures, overdose, or death. Before addiction, substance abuse can heighten an individual’s tolerance to a drug, causing them to need an increased amount each time to get an effect. This leads to dependence on certain substances. Signs of dependence can include:

  • Increased amounts of the drug(s) needed to feel its effect
  • Withdrawal symptoms caused by stopping or decreasing the amount of the drug, or finding difficult to quit
  • Spending a lot of time to acquire, use, or recover from the effects of drug use
  • Continued use of the drug, even though the individual is aware of the negative effects it has caused or will cause to their health, personal relationships, employment, or living situation

The experimental use of a recreational drug in social situations often turns into dependency, which leads to more frequent drug use and can become addiction. 


Addiction is a chronic disease caused by changes in the function of the brain and body due to the persistent use of alcohol, medications, or illegal drugs. Like any other disease, addiction is caused by a combination of behavioral, psychological, environmental, and biological factors – genetics can account for about half of the likelihood that an individual will develop an addiction. According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM), “addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory, and related circuitry.” When substance use causes a person’s brain to change in a way that affects their brain function and health, addiction is born out of the changes in the brain to reward, motivation, and memory, causing an individual to compulsively crave that thing. The characteristics of addiction can include: 

  • The inability to stop using or consuming a substance 
  • Displaying a lack of control toward the thing one is addicted to
  • Showing an increased desire for a substance 
  • Refusing to acknowledge the problem and the negative consequences
  • Changes in emotion, behavior, or response to everyday life or life events; lacking healthy emotional responses 

People struggling to recover from addiction are also more prone to cycles of relapse and remission, causing addictions to worsen over time and often lead to permanent health and mental health problems.

How Does Substance Use Change the Brain?

Satisfying basic needs such as hunger or boredom can stimulate the brain, causing certain chemicals to release in the pleasure center of the brain that reinforce and incentivize the individual to continue doing those things. Addictive substances cause the brain to release high levels of the same chemicals associated with pleasure, which changes the brain functions involved in memory, motivation, and reward overtime. As the brain tries to get back to its normal state of function by minimizing its reaction to the chemicals, an individual begins to need more and more of the substance to feel “normal”. This preference to the substance overtime may begin to overtake the desire to engage in healthy pleasures and normal life activities, leading to addiction. These changes to the neuroplasticity – how your brain rewires itself in response to your environment or activities – of the brain can remain even for anywhere from a few months to over a year after the person stops using substances, which can increase the risk of relapse. 

Recognizing the Signs of Drug Use 

Recognizing the signs of drug use early can be vital in the prevention of continued substance abuse in your friends, family members, and even yourself. Distinguishing mood changes caused by normal life progression from drug use can be difficult. Possible signs that a loved one is using drugs can include:

  • Lack of energy, motivation, sudden weight loss or gain, or red eyes
  • Missing work or school, sudden disinterest in activities, or sudden drop in grades or work performance
  • Little to no concern for hygiene
  • Random or unexpected abnormalities in heart rate, blood pressure, or blood work
  • Depression, anxiety, sleep problems, or sudden and extreme changes in behavior, relationships, or emotional responses

Treatment for Substance Abuse and Addiction

People struggling with addiction usually deny that they have a problem and will hesitate or altogether deny seeking treatment. Specific treatment for substance abuse or addiction can depend on the type of substances you use, how long you have been using them, and how frequently you use them. The damage and changes drug use causes to your brain can be severe, and the amount of time it may take your brain to rewire from the damage can vary. For some, it may take a year or more for the dopamine levels in the reward systems of the brain to return to normal. Others may suffer lifelong consequences, such as permanent health issues or mental impairment. The most important thing, however, to remember about addiction treatment is that treatment and recovery is possible. Certain forms of therapy and cognitive therapy have shown to be helpful in handling triggers that reignite the desire to use choice substances. Exercise has also been suggested to be a healthy way to work through triggers or cravings and has been found to improve the connections in your prefrontal cortex, leading to better decision making and critical thinking. Talk therapy has also been proven useful, providing an individual with support, accountability, and often a plan for how to prevent relapse and how to avoid high-risk situations. There are a variety of treatment and recovery programs, both inpatient and outpatient, available for substance abuse and addiction treatment. Long-term care and support after detox are the most important part of recovery and maintaining sobriety. This can include formal group meetings (such as AA), psychosocial support systems, and long-term individual or group therapy to address issues that may have contributed to or resulted in the use or abuse of drugs or alcohol. 

With so many options for treatment, some individuals may not know where or how to start. Maybe this person is you. Maybe you fight against this feeling every day, or have had the desire to quit for some time but don’t know how to start. Maybe the frustration of those around you pushing you to quit has driven you to deny treatment altogether. Maybe you’re just scared of getting treatment because you don’t know how to feel normal without drugs or alcohol. You’re not alone. Contact us today at FMHWC.org to learn more about addiction, how to find treatment, and how we can help connect you with a team of compassionate professionals who can guide you on your way to recovery, through every step. If you or a loved one is ready to get help, call us today at (702) 731-0909. We’re here for you when you are ready. 


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Vertava Health. (2019, October 3). How Long Has Addiction Been Classified As A Disease? VertavaHealth. Retrieved February 12, 2023 from https://vertavahealth.com/blog/how-long-addiction-classified-disease/

Partnership to End Addiction Staff. (2022, October). Is Addiction a Disease? DrugFree.org. Retrieved February 12, 2023 from https://drugfree.org/article/is-addiction-a-disease/

Mayo Clinic Medical Staff. (2022, October 4). Drug addiction (substance use disorder). Mayo Clinic. Retrieved February 12, 2023 from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/drug-addiction/symptoms-causes/syc-20365112

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McGuire, J. (2022). How Long Does It Take to Rewire the Brain From Addiction? Experts Weigh In. WebMD.Retrieved February 14, 2023 from https://www.webmd.com/connect-to-care/addiction-treatment-recovery/how-long-does-it-take-to-rewire-the-brain-from-addiction

Category: Health & Wellness