What are substance misuse and addiction?

Addiction, otherwise known as substance misuse, is the use of substances for non-medical, usually recreational purposes or without a proper prescription. These substances are normally illegal in the form of illicit drugs such as heroin, cocaine or cannabis that can become addictive and lead to destructive patterns of behaviour. Prolonged substance misuse has been shown to lead to addiction and other mental health problems.

Illegal drugs are not the only substance misused. Individuals can find themselves misusing legal substances such as alcohol, prescription medications, caffeine, nicotine, and volatile substances (e.g. petrol, glue, paint).

Regular or continuous abusive use of substances can leave a person with an elevated risk of developing an addiction. This can be a physical and/or psychological need for a substance, often manifest through negative withdrawal symptoms such as sickness, shakes and cravings.

Is drug use a mental illness?

Drug use is not a mental health illness per se, but regular drug or substance use can increase the chances of developing mental illness or addiction.

Many people start using substances out of curiosity to have fun. Some use substances to cope with difficult feelings, situations, or memories, such as grief, stress, a relationship break-up, or childhood abuse. Others start due to peer pressure or to fit in.

Mental illnesses that can develop due to drug use and the associated lifestyle include anxiety, psychosis, PTSD, depression, and more, depending on the individual and the substances taken.

What causes substance misuse?

There is usually a mix of several factors that can lead to someone becoming substance dependent, including:

  • Existing mental health problems or difficulties, such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder
  • High levels of stress – people often use substances, such as cannabis or alcohol to help them relax
  • Traumatic experiences
  • Difficulties in your personal and work-life
  • Personality factors – being someone who constantly seeks excitement or disregards risk or someone who is less inhibited
  • Chronic physical health problems, such as pain can increase the risk of developing an addiction to pain medication or opioids (e.g., heroin)
  • A history of using substances or using substances a lot.
  • Genes – some people are more prone to developing an addiction., It is still unclear to what extent our genes are to blame, but those with a family addiction history may be more likely to substance abuse.
  • Environment plays a key role in people developing an addiction, including experiences of trauma, difficulties at home or having friends who use substances.
  • Age – those exposed to substance abuse or addiction at a young age or childhood are more likely to develop an addiction.

Symptoms of drug use and withdrawal

Worried that you may be using substances uncontrollably or may be becoming addicted? Here are some of the most common symptoms of substance misuse:

  • Repeatedly neglecting responsibilities at home, work, or school. For example, doing poorly at work, missing classes or appointments, or neglecting your children because you are on drugs or hungover.
  • Using drugs in dangerous situations, such as driving while high, using dirty needles or having unprotected sex.
  • Experiencing legal trouble, such as arrests for disorderly conduct, driving under the influence, or stealing to support a habit.
  • Relationship issues including regular fights with your partner, family members or friends.
  • Using more drugs more often to experience the same effects as in the past. This is sometimes referred to as “chasing” a high.
  • Using substances to avoid or relieve withdrawal symptoms.
  • Loss of control over your substance use, such as using more or more often, feeling unable to stop.
  • Planning your life around the substance, for example, spending a lot of time thinking about it, how to get it and to recover from its effects.
  • Abandoning activities such as hobbies, sports, and socializing because of substance use.
  • Continuing to use a substance, despite knowing it’s causing major problems in your life, such as blackouts, financial issues, infections, mood swings, depression and paranoia.

Different substances provide different physical and emotional effects. However, all abused substances alter how the brain functions. Such changes can be so significant that you will likely start experiencing a range of unpleasant symptoms or withdrawal symptoms if you try to stop using a substance or drug. Such symptoms commonly include:

  • Nausea
  • Restlessness
  • Insomnia
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Sweating
  • Shaking
  • Hallucinations
  • Headaches

It is often the fear of experiencing withdrawal symptoms that stop someone from quitting.

Treatment for drug use

Ever hear of the saying “the first step is acceptance”?

Realising and accepting that you are misusing or are addicted to a substance is the first step in finding solutions. Treatment for substance misuse varies depending on the type of substance being used.

The best place to start is by discussing things with a mental health professional to suggest treatments that are best for you.

If you decide to seek help for drug use, your psychologist will guide you through your treatment options, agree on a treatment plan with you and support you through the process.

Below is a list of the most common treatments:

  • Talking therapies, such as cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), focus on how your thoughts and beliefs impact your behaviours. CBT can help you identify triggers to your substance use and teach you more helpful ways of managing stress and problems.
  • Medication – Those dependent on heroin or another opioid drug may be offered a substitute drug, such as methadone. Medication may also be offered to help manage withdrawal symptoms, such as anxiety or depression.
  • Peer support groups, such as Narcotics Anonymous (NA), provides support based on the 12-steps model, where one addict helping another is an essential part of the program. These programmes are also helpful as they give a network of support and shows that others are experiencing the same problems and issues. They tend to advocate complete abstinence.
  • Detox, or ‘going cold turkey, is a process where you stop using the substance in a controlled way with support from a trained professional.
  • Self-help, including online resources and communities.
  • Residential rehabilitation, or rehab, is provided within a residential setting; it is usually abstinence-based and provides an intense programme of support and care aimed at people who have difficulty becoming drug-free in the community.

Can I recover from substance misuse?

Yes, a lot of people have recovered from substance misuse and drug use. However, recovering from substance misuse often involves lifestyle changes such a distancing yourself from unhelpful influences in your social circle and accepting a life without drugs.

It is normal for more than one attempt to break the cycle of substance misuse. A Clinical Psychologist can support you on your journey towards recovery.