A Guide to Substance Use Disorders & Alcoholism
An addiction can strike a person when they least expect it, as they’re trying to handle an increase in their workload, childcare or child-rearing, mental health issues, family issues, or for no reason whatsoever. It often begins innocently — trying to relieve the stress of everyday life, or just to try something new. Before the person knows it, they’re turning to the drug or alcohol as a way of coping with any negative feelings or stress in their lives. They may find they need more and more of the drug or drink in order to gain the same benefits from it. Efforts to scale back or to stop altogether are difficult or next-to-impossible.
Drug addiction and alcohol addiction is usually not easily overcome on one’s own. Most people who face an addiction to a substance or alcohol need additional help.
There is no single right way to treat a drug or alcohol addiction. And while popular groups like Alcoholics Anonymous preach that abstinence is the only way you can kick an addiction, others believe that learning to undo the behavioral cues that lead a person to drink or take drugs in excess is a more realistic and healthy goal (aka Moderation Management). At the onset of your treatment, you’ll have to figure out what path works best for you and your needs.
There are many different terms used in drug addiction to describe the problem. Older diagnostic manuals differentiated between those who abused a drug or alcohol and dependence upon the drug, but the latest diagnostic manual, the DSM-5, doesn’t. The DSM-5 simply refers to substance use disorders to describe any addiction to any drug or alcohol (with different codes that identify the substance being abused). For the most part, all of these terms — addiction, drug abuse, substance abuse, alcoholism — can be used interchangeably.
Grappling with an addiction is rarely easy, because of its habitual nature as well as structural brain changes that occur with constant substance or alcohol use. While inpatient programs (“rehab”) are often found in popular media, research studies suggest they are no more effective than structured, intensive outpatient programs — which are also less expensive — for addiction treatment. All addiction treatment is focused on the use of individual and group psychotherapy sessions to help a person understand how their life is negatively impacted by the addiction, and learn how to cope without the substance.
Learn more: Frequently Asked Questions About Alcoholism
Symptoms of Addiction
Substance use disorder symptoms are characterized by having two or more problems with substance or alcohol use over a period of a year. These symptoms include: cravings; continued use despite health problems; regular over-consumption; worry about over-use; negative impact on relationships with others; using in a dangerous or problematic situation; giving up activities due to use; spending a lot of time using or trying to use; giving up or having a significant negative impact at work, school, or with some other set of responsibilities; building up a tolerance; and experiencing withdrawal symptoms when trying to quit.
Here are more detailed articles about these symptoms:
- Substance Use Disorder Symptoms
- Opioid Use Disorder Symptoms
- Symptoms of Alcoholism
- Gaming Disorder Symptoms
Most addiction treatment is focused on helping a person overcome the addiction through psychotherapy. The psychological treatments commonly used in the treatment of substance use disorders and alcoholism include: motivational interviewing; motivational enhancement therapy; prize-based contingency management; seeking safety; friend care, guided self-change; and other behavioral and cognitive-behavioral based techniques.
A number of articles discuss addiction treatment and the options that are available. It’s important to keep in mind that if you choose to do inpatient treatment, the length of your treatment will be determined not by your specific needs or treatment professional, but by how much your insurance company will pay for it. Many inpatient rehab centers are modeled around this approach — not by providing the best treatment outcomes for the patients they serve. For most people, an outpatient treatment approach will be just as effective and much more affordable, without limitation on the length of treatment.
Some people find 12 step programs helpful as adjunct to treatment, especially for the social support such programs offer. You can learn about recovery from addiction using the 12 steps but also understand that 12 step programs are not for everyone.
Living With & Managing Life with Addiction
While no two people experience an addiction in exactly the same way, it helps to know that you are not alone and there are lots of options and coping skills to help you recover from and live with this condition. These articles help people who are living in recovery.
- Stages of Change
- Substance Abuse: The Power of Acceptance
- Relapse Prevention
- Detoxing from Drugs and Alcohol
Helping Someone with Addiction
Sometimes a person struggling with addiction won’t want help. Some people may be unable to see or acknowledge the problem that colleagues, friends, and family all believe is readily evident. While psychologists might refer to this as the person being in denial of their condition or its severity, insisting that a person seek help exactly as dictated by others is rarely going to bring about positive change. Instead, family members and friends should reach out to the person and let them know of the options that are available for the addict who doesn’t seem to want help.
Ultimately, it must be the person who is struggling with addiction’s decision to seek out and get help. Family members and friends, however, can offer emotional support for this decision, and ensure the person has access to the resources that will help start down the path to recovery.
Learn more: The Family’s Role in Addiction and Recovery
Recovery from addiction is more than possible, but requires a person’s strong commitment to change. Initially, a person may be skeptical of treatment, or even deny that there’s a problem with addiction. Many people start their journey of recovery by discussing treatment options with their family doctor or personal physician, who may offer a referral to a behavioral addiction specialist. An addiction specialist is ultimately the type of professional who will help a person understand their treatment options and recommend an approach based upon the severity of the addition and resources available in the local community.
Many people prefer to learn more about addiction before making a decision about the approach to try. We offer additional articles on addiction, alcoholism, and substance abuse, in addition to our peer-led, online addiction support group.
More Resources & Stories: Addictions on OC87 Recovery Diaries
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, Fifth edition. Arlington, VA.
National Institute of Mental Health. (2020). Substance use and mental health. Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/substance-use-and-mental-health/index.shtml
Grohol, J. (2020). Addictions. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 6, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/addictions/