General Signs of Substance Abuse
General Signs of Substance Abuse
Novikov Alex /

Not all people who abuse the same drug suffer in the same ways. Your body and your brain chemistry are different from the next person’s. Frequency, longevity, and amount of consumption also depend on the person. One thing is true for everyone, however: Substance abuse is dangerous.

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Substance abuse can lead to addiction and physical dependence.

The word “addiction” is often coupled with the word “dependence.” Addiction describes the emotional and social factors that compel a person to abuse a drug. Dependence captures the physiological effects of long-term drug usage, such as withdrawal. A person’s addiction may cause them to spend their savings to buy drugs, for example. A person’s physical dependence on a drug may cause them to shake or tremble until they take another hit. Addiction and physical dependence on a substance can be life-threatening. If the abused substance doesn’t kill you, it will degrade your health and your mental well-being until you seek treatment.

Substance abuse affects everyone around the person who uses.

If someone abuses alcohol or another drug, their roommates, hallmates, classmates, professors, friends, and family will all be affected. They care and want their loved one to be safe and healthy.

  • If you are addicted to or dependent on a drug or alcohol: Consider seeking help for your specific situation. Alcohol abuse and alcoholism are treated differently than other substance abuse. Similarly, nicotine can create serious addictions and dependencies, but you can treat them.
  • If you know someone who might be abusing a drug or alcohol: Learn about their addiction. There are hundreds of substances out there, and abuse of one of them does not necessarily look like abuse of another. Alcohol abuse, nicotine dependence, and abuse of other substances all present their own hurdles. Understand your loved one’s struggle so that you can help them toward recovery, and don’t forget to take care of yourself too.

Substances behave differently, and so do human bodies.

Any number of signs may indicate addiction or physical dependence.

  • Genetic predisposition to alcoholism or substance abuse
  • Loss of control
    • Not being able to limit how much you drink, smoke, or use
    • Not being able to decide when you drink, smoke, or use
    • Wanting to quit or cut back, but failing
    • Feeling a physical or emotional need to drink, smoke, or use
    • Feeling upset if alcohol or drugs are not present at an event
  • Behavioral changes
    • Having a high tolerance
    • Needing to consume more and more to feel the effects
    • Blacking out (not remembering what happened while you were under the influence)
    • Staying drunk or high for extended periods of time (e.g., a day or several days)
    • Feeling depressed or anxious unless you are drinking, smoking, or using
    • Losing interest in hobbies, classes, and work
  • Physical changes
    • Rapid weight loss or weight gain
    • Loss of appetite
    • Sudden changes to sleep schedules
    • Letting yourself go (e.g., not showering or grooming)
  • Carelessness
    • Mixing two or more substances
    • Facing consequences on campus because of your drug use (e.g., underage drinking, destruction of property, etc.)
    • Facing legal repercussions because of your drinking or drug habits (e.g., drinking and driving, public intoxication, underage drinking, etc.)
    • Drinking, smoking, or using even when you recognize that it interferes with your academic or work performance
    • Borrowing money or spending what you do have on alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs
    • Showing up drunk or high to class or work
  • Damaged relationships
    • Avoiding family and friends
    • Fighting with anyone who confronts you about your drinking habits or drug use
    • Becoming violent or having violent thoughts
    • Hanging out with new people who have similar drinking or drug habits
    • Drinking, smoking, or using alone
    • Spending most of your time in bars, clubs, or other places where it is socially acceptable to drink alcohol or consume drugs (e.g., keg parties, your dorm room, etc.)
  • Denial
    • Sneaking extra drinks or hits so that others won’t see
    • Feeling guilty about your alcohol or drug habits
    • Lying about your alcohol or drug habits
    • Blaming others
    • Becoming defensive or behaving irrationally when confronted about your alcohol or drug habits
  • Physical withdrawal symptoms
    • Shakiness
    • Depression
    • Anxiety
    • Irritability
    • Headache
    • Fatigue
    • Nausea
    • Insomnia
    • Change in appetite

Remember that not all drug use develops into long-term habits. There are plenty of college students who occasionally indulge without ever becoming addicted to a substance. This page is meant to help you recognize the difference between relatively innocuous behaviors and highly dangerous ones. Recognition is the first step to getting the help that you or your loved one needs.

Page last updated: 04/2019