Substance Use, Abuse, or Addiction: What’s the difference?

Substance use and addictionIn the world of substance use treatment, there are various terms that can become confusing when one begins treatment or are new on their journey of recovery. One area of confusion is understanding the difference between substance use, abuse, and addiction. 

When a person can define and fully understand what they are experiencing, it can help them in the process of healing and making positive progress towards change. So, what’s the difference?  

Substance Use 

Substance use is the use of alcohol or other drugs in order to feel the effects of the substance in social settings or elsewhere. This may or may not lead to abuse or eventual addiction. This behavior can become harmful when the substance is used to excess, such as alcohol intoxication and then driving a vehicle.   

Substance Abuse 

Substance abuse is categorized by the experience of one or more of these factors while using alcohol or other drugs over a twelve-month period:  

  • Repeated issues with fulfilling obligations at work, school, or home due to substance use. Such as failure to show up to work.  
  • Continued substance use in physically dangerous situations. Such as entering negative social interactions in search of a substance.  
  • Repeated legal problems due to substance use, such as multiple DUIs.  
  • Recurring social or interpersonal problems due to the substance use or exacerbated by the substance use. Examples include a family member expressing concern for the increased substance use.  


Addiction is a pattern of use that can lead to a person experiencing three or more of the following symptoms over a twelve-month period:  

  • A person needs more and more of the substance to achieve euphoria or the feeling of being high, which is defined as tolerance.  
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms – physical symptoms when alcohol or another drug is not being used. A few of these symptoms are nausea, shaking, vomiting, anxiety, and/or seizures.  
  • The substance is taken in a larger quantity over a longer period of time 
  • There are unsuccessful efforts put towards stopping the use of the substance 
  • A large amount of time is spent on obtaining the substance, using the substance, or recovering from the substance’s effects.  
  • Social, occupational, or recreational activities are affected due to the use of the substance.  
  • The use of the substance continues despite the knowledge that psychological or physical problems are caused by the substance or exacerbated by the substance.  

Treatment can vary depending on where a person is in terms of their substance use, abuse, or addiction. If you have any questions about starting a treatment program or seeking support for anything mentioned above, please reach out to us here at Healthy Minds Therapy. Feel free to ask for Sarah Chun.  


The information above sourced from: 


About Sarah Chun

Sarah is a Resident in Counseling providing counseling services through our Alexandria location. She completed her Master’s in Clinical Mental Health Counseling with a Certificate in Addictions Studies from Immaculata University. She received her Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and Music: Vocal Performance from American University in Washington, D.C. Sarah is a National Certified Counselor and a member of the American Counseling Association. Sarah is pursuing her License in Professional Counseling (LPC) for the state of Virginia and is working towards a certification in TF-CBT. To learn more about Sarah, click HERE

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