Substance abuse, or problematic relationships with drugs or alcohol, impact some 20% of all Americans. This includes individuals who take drugs and alcohol in problematic ways, in problematic situations, and in problematic situations. A further 1 in 12 of us have a substance use disorder. Some 21.6 million Americans are addicted to drugs or alcohol, meaning that the average person knows at least 3 people who have or will have a problematic relationship with substances.
Substance abuse and substance use disorder are common. Yet, millions of Americans see nothing wrong with regularly abusing drugs or alcohol. In fact, while 80% of the U.S. population drinks almost 60% of us binge drink at least occasionally. And, 9.4% of us use recreational drugs. Substance use is so heavily engrained in our culture and society that it can be difficult to recognize when drinking or substance use becomes problematic and when it’s normal.
These 7 early warning signs of substance use disorder highlight some of the most common signs you have a problem.
1) You Regularly Binge Substances
Binging is the process of using a significant portion of a substance, usually with the intent to become heavily intoxicated. For alcohol, binging is just 4 units of alcohol (four beers) within an hour. That’s harder with other drugs, but if you’re regularly taking enough to get very intoxicated, high, or to even blackout, it counts as a binge. Today, 1 in 6 Americans regularly binge drinks. This results in car accidents, declining health, chronic diseases, and increased vulnerability to substance use disorder.
While there’s nothing inherently wrong with occasionally having a few too many with friends, it becomes a problem when you normally do so. The more often you binge, the more tolerance you build, and the more you have to drink or use to get the same effects. This is a strong early indicator of substance use disorder and addiction.
2) You Hide or Lie About Substance Use
If you’ve ever caught yourself hiding or lying about whether you’ve drank or used, you might have a problem. If you don’t have a problem, you’d have nothing to be ashamed of and therefore no reason to lie. That’s important, because hiding usage is an early symptom of substance use disorder. The worse substance abuse gets, the more you’ll try to hide it, to act normal, and to pretend there’s nothing wrong. The important thing here is that that hiding and lying can be from yourself. People practice self-deception around substance use all the time, hiding how much they’re drinking or using by refilling or swapping bottles, by keeping multiple stashes, and otherwise making it harder to keep track.
Eventually, if you feel guilt or shame, are using more than you think you should, are using in situations that could endanger yourself or others or your career, or you’re at the point where family and friends are expressing concern, it’s very likely you have a problem. If you have to hide it, it’s a problem.
3) You’re Building Tolerance
The more you drink or use, the more you need to drink or use to achieve the same results. This is known as tolerance, which builds up over time and exposure. Tolerance thresholds involve how much of a substance you need to take regularly for that to stop having the same effect. When you hit it, most people increase the dose and continue on that scale. This pattern of escalation is the fastest way to addiction. The higher your exposure to substances, the higher your risk of substance use disorder.
Be Brave. Get Help.
4) You Can’t Quit
We’ve all said things like, “I’ll start tomorrow”, or “Just one more time”, but what happens if you can’t actually slow down? If you really want to quit, or minimize your substance use, but you can’t? Most addicts don’t end up in a full addiction overnight. You recognize your own patterns of increasing escalation, thing you should slow down, minimize intake, or even stop for a bit. Most of us even succeed with that, for a bit. Afterwards, we escalate further, making up for lost time.
If that’s you or your loved one, you definitely have a problem. Inability to quit, especially in light of recognizing the need to, is one of the primary symptoms of a substance use disorder. That closely ties into the next point.
5) You’re Not in Control
If you frequently drink more than intended, black out, don’t remember the night, or can’t actually control yourself around a substance, you have a problem. This kind of behavior is especially visible with alcohol use disorders, where you can more easily publicly state intentions. For example, “I’ll have one drink and head home”.
In any situation where you actively plan to only use a small amount and end up binging, you likely have a problem. The same can be said of accidental binges, overdoses, memory problems, or problematic behavior resulting in endangering yourself or others.
6) You Constantly Think About It
A bad habit is a bad habit. People compare early stage relationships to drug addiction for good reason, you can’t stop thinking about it. The more time you spend actively thinking about drinking, being drunk, using, being high, or acquiring drugs and alcohol, the more likely it is you have a problem. People without a problem don’t look forward to being drunk, they don’t fantasize about being high, and they don’t obsess over or discomfit themselves to acquire or use their substance of choice.
This means that if you frequently find yourself investing a large amount of time or energy in acquiring or using drugs or alcohol, go over budget, consider substance use anytime you’re stressed, or make changes to your diet, budget, or lifestyle to accommodate using, you likely have a problem. That can range from the seemingly benign (skipping a few parties to stay in and drink) to directly unhealthy choices like skipping meals so you can drink more without weight gain.
7) You Experience Physical Withdrawal
If you stop drinking or using and get cold or flu symptoms, you’re going through withdrawal. While it’s one thing to have a hangover, people with physical dependence on substances experience withdrawal symptoms on quitting. These normally kick in between 12 and 48 hours after your final usage. In most cases, they start out with anxiety, sweating, fever, and restlessness. Many mimic a cold or flu. But, if you consistently experience that when stopping alcohol or drugs for a few days, you have a problem.
Physical symptoms don’t mean you’re addicted, but they do mean your body is so accustomed to substances that it has to adjust to not having them. This puts you at high risk for substance use disorder. You need medical attention.
If any of these sound like you or a loved one, it’s important to assess the problem, look for help, and reach out to professionals. Doing so can mean involving your doctor or therapist. It can also mean talking to a rehabilitation facility and going into substance abuse treatment. Most people struggle to change substance abuse habits on their own, because substance abuse isn’t just about wanting to drink or use. Most drug and alcohol use disorders stem from underlying behavioral problems, stress, poor coping mechanisms, and mental health. You need professional help to navigate those problems and to build long-term coping mechanisms that allow you to live a healthy and happy life.