The Difference between Substance Use and Abuse

The stress of the COVID-19 pandemic may cause some people to cross the line from regular substance use to abuse. Here are signs to look for.

Have you ever wondered if there’s a specific point at which regular substance use becomes substance abuse? Or if there’s an event or sequence of events that may trigger a person to misuse alcohol, marijuana or other drugs?

The unprecedented world events surrounding the novel coronavirus pandemic may be a trigger that leads to substance abuse. With all of the stress, anxiety and uncertainty in the world right now, some people may turn to alcohol or other substances as a way to cope or ease their fear and anxiety.

A substance is something a person willingly ingests that alters their brain, affecting mood or thought processes. These substances can be legal or illegal, or in the case of marijuana, legal in some places but not in others. They are typically consumed with the goal of experiencing euphoria, easing sadness, reducing stress, eliminating pain or blurring difficult memories. Or they’re simply used as a way to relax and have fun.  Some of the most common substances used and abused include:

  • Alcohol
  • Marijuana
  • Prescription drugs, especially opioid pain medication
  • Cocaine, heroin, methamphetamines and other street drugs

Many people believe they can use some substances responsibly, such as when they consume a few alcoholic drinks with friends on the weekend or take a couple of painkillers when their back hurts. But all of these substances are addictive, meaning they have the power to take over a person’s life if used regularly.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse defines substance abuse as “a chronic, relapsing brain disease that is characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences.” Although there is no finite line that separates use from abuse, there are several signs that indicate that casual or social use of a substance has turned into dangerous abuse. It is likely abuse or addiction if the person:

  • Has developed a physical dependence on the substance
  • Experiences withdrawal symptoms if temporarily stopping usage
  • Has intense cravings for the substance
  • Is experiencing health complications from use of the substance
  • Has lost the ability to perform normal daily activities (like caring for children, going to work or even getting out of bed in the morning)
  • Feels powerless to stop using the substance despite any of these issues


If you suspect that someone you care about has a substance abuse problem or if you’re worried about your own substance abuse issues, it’s important to get help. The first step is admitting there’s a problem and being willing to seek help to combat the addiction. Treatment for substance use disorder includes support groups, counseling, biofeedback and medications.

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Date Last Reviewed: March 30, 2020

Editorial Review: Andrea Cohen, Editorial Director, Baldwin Publishing, Inc. Contact Editor

Medical Review: Perry Pitkow, MD

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