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Understanding Substance Use Disorder:
Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments

Understand the complexities of substance use disorder and discover effective treatment options in this comprehensive article.


What is Substance Use Disorder?

Substance use disorder (SUD) is a complex and often misunderstood condition. It’s more than simply a lack of willpower to stop taking substances; it’s a chronic brain disease characterized by the uncontrollable use of substances despite harmful consequences.
Substance Use Disorder

The Complexity of Addiction

Addiction is a multifaceted condition that disrupts the normal functioning of the brain’s reward system. Repeated substance use alters the brain’s chemistry and structure. This makes it difficult to control cravings and resist the urge to use.
Substance use disorder can manifest differently in each person. However, the core characteristic – the loss of control over substance use – remains a defining feature.

A Closer Look at SUD

Empower a Healthier Tomorrow With New Choices

New Choices Treatment Center (NCTC) stands as a beacon of hope for individuals and families grappling with the challenges of substance use disorder. We understand the complexities of addiction and the impact it can have on all aspects of life.
Our dedicated team of professionals is committed to providing comprehensive, evidence-based treatment. This helps address the underlying causes of SUD and empowers clients to reclaim their lives.

Understanding Substance Use Disorder

Substance use disorder is a condition where a person becomes dependent on drugs or alcohol despite negative consequences.
Individuals with SUD develop an unhealthy focus on using the substance, often to the point where it significantly disrupts their daily lives.
Here is how it impacts individuals and their families:

Impact on Individuals

Substance use disorder affected 17.3% of the population in 2022. People with SUD may find their daily lives disrupted. The disorder can also reduce their ability to manage work, home, or school responsibilities.1
SUD often leads to a preoccupation with substances, pushing aside hobbies, social interactions, and personal goals. Over time, this can result in noticeable changes in behavior, health, and well-being.

Impact on Families

Witnessing a loved one struggle with SUD can cause:
  • Significant stress
  • Anxiety
  • Emotional turmoil 
The disorder can strain relationships, leading to emotional distress for all members.
The costs associated with addiction can take a toll on the family’s financial resources. This includes costs associated with treatment and lost productivity.

Impact on Communities

Substance use is a contributing factor to crime, accidents, and violence within communities. Addiction strains healthcare systems, social services, and workplaces. This is due to increased demand for resources and lost productivity.

Neurobiology of Addiction and the Brain's Reward System

Repeated use of substances triggers significant changes in the brain’s reward system. This hijacks the brain’s natural mechanisms for motivation and pleasure in the following ways:

Hijacking the Reward System

Addictive substances artificially flood the reward pathway with dopamine. This creates an intense feeling of pleasure far exceeding natural rewards.
Over time, the brain adapts to this surge by decreasing:
  • Its own dopamine production
  • Number of dopamine receptors
This creates a state of tolerance, where increasingly larger amounts of the substance are needed to achieve the same pleasurable effect.

Beyond Dopamine

The neurobiology of substance use disorder extends beyond just dopamine. Other neurotransmitters also play a role in regulating reward, motivation, and memory.
Among them are:
  • Glutamate
  • Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA)
  • Opioids
Substance misuse disrupts the delicate balance of these neurochemicals. This leads to impaired decision-making and difficulty experiencing pleasure from non-drug activities.

Learning and Memory

Prolonged substance use can change the brain’s structure, particularly in areas responsible for:
  • Judgment
  • Decision-making
  • Learning
  • Memory
These alterations can make it difficult for people to control their actions and resist urges.

Neurological Adaptations

The brain’s remarkable plasticity allows it to adapt to repeated drug use. These adaptations can become long-lasting, even persisting after a period of abstinence. This highlights the importance of ongoing support and treatment for people recovering from SUD.

"Addressing both the psychological and physiological aspects of substance use disorders is crucial for comprehensive and effective treatment. Physiologically, substance use affects the brain and body, leading to dependence and withdrawal symptoms. Proper medical care is necessary to manage detoxification and stabilize the individual physically. Psychologically, substance use disorders often involve underlying emotional and mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, or trauma. These issues can drive the cycle of addiction, making it essential to address them through therapy and counseling. By treating both the physical and mental aspects, we can provide holistic care that supports overall recovery."

Myths and Realities: Dispelling Misconceptions & Stigma Surrounding SUD

Here are some commonly held myths about substance use disorder:

Addiction is a Choice

Initially, someone might choose to use a substance. However, the choice quickly becomes a disorder that controls their behavior. It’s influenced by genetics, environment, and brain chemistry.
Over time, the person has a hard time controlling the craving and reducing substance use. In that case, it then becomes a disease in the sense that it requires medical attention and treatment, just like many other chronic illnesses do.

Addiction is a Moral Failing

Addiction is not a moral failing or a sign of weakness. It’s a disease that requires professional intervention and ongoing support. Shaming and blaming people with SUD only increases the isolation and stigma they experience. This can hinder their chances of recovery.

Addiction Only Affects Certain Types of People

Addiction can happen to anyone, no matter their age, gender, wealth, or background. Recognizing this can help people be less judgmental and more compassionate.

People With Addiction Must Hit Rock Bottom to Get Help

People with substance use disorder don’t need to wait for a crisis to seek help. It is important to seek help early on to avoid more severe problems. The earlier someone gets support, the better their chance of recovery.

People With Substance Use Disorder Lack Willpower

The compulsive drug-seeking behavior associated with SUD is not simply a matter of willpower. The changes in the brain’s reward system create a powerful drive to use the substance. This makes it extremely challenging to resist without support and treatment.

Relapse Means Failure

Relapse is a common occurrence in the recovery process from substance use disorder. It doesn’t signify failure. Instead, it is an opportunity to identify triggers and adjust treatment strategies. Support systems and relapse prevention techniques can be crucial in navigating these challenges.

The Spectrum of Substance Use

Substance use disorder can develop in relation to a wide range of substances. Understanding the types of substances, the risk factors that contribute to misuse, and the patterns of use associated with SUD is crucial for effective prevention and treatment strategies.

Types of Substances

The following are some of the most common substances that can lead to addiction:


Alcohol is one of the most commonly abused substances and is legally available in many parts of the world. Despite its social acceptance, it has a high potential for addiction, known as alcohol use disorder (AUD).
In the US, approximately 29.5 million people suffer from AUD every year. Alcohol can impact the liver, brain, and other vital organs. It disrupts normal brain function, leading to dependency and a range of harmful physical and mental health issues.2

A Closer Look at AUD


Opioids are a class of drugs that include both prescription medications for pain relief, such as oxycodone and hydrocodone, and illegal substances like heroin. In the US, about 2.1 million people have an opioid use disorder.3
These drugs are extremely addictive due to their potent effect on the brain’s reward pathways. They can ultimately lead to opioid use disorder (OUD).

Signs of OUD


Stimulants such as cocaine and methamphetamine enhance alertness, attention, and energy. Their high can be so reinforcing that users may quickly begin a cycle of use that is hard to break. This usually leads to severe addiction.
The addictive properties of these substances are attributed to their ability to increase dopamine in the brain. Long-term use can lead to serious health issues, including heart problems and severe mental health disorders.


Benzodiazepines are commonly prescribed for anxiety and insomnia. Drugs in this category include:
  • Valium
  • Xanax
  • Ativan
Although effective for short-term treatment, they pose a high risk of addiction if misused. Dependency can develop quickly, and withdrawal from benzodiazepines can be particularly severe. This requires careful medical supervision to manage.


Cannabis is often seen as a less harmful drug, but it can still lead to addiction. Prolonged and frequent use, especially starting in adolescence, can lead to dependency. In fact, almost 1 in 5 people who use cannabis develop cannabis use disorder.4


Hallucinogens affect perception and can alter a person’s understanding of reality. These can include:
  • Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD)
  • Psilocybin (magic mushrooms)
  • MDMA (ecstasy)
While not as addictive as other substances, these drugs can lead to psychological dependence. They may be used to escape reality or to repeat profound experiences. This can lead to unpredictable and potentially dangerous psychological effects.


Inhalants are commonly found in household products such as aerosols, glues, and paint thinners. These are often abused by people who are in need of an immediate rush.
Inhalants are dangerous and can lead to sudden death from heart failure or asphyxiation even after just one use. Long-term use can result in serious damage to the brain, liver, and kidneys, and addiction can develop unexpectedly.

Risk Factors of Substance Use Disorder

Some of the most common risk factors for substance use disorder include:

Biological Factors

Genetic predisposition plays a role in substance use disorder. Some genes change how drugs affect the body or how fast they are metabolized. The vulnerability to substance misuse is inherited in 40-60% of cases.5
Brain disorders like anxiety and depression can also make people more likely to use drugs as a form of self-medication.

Environmental Factors

Environmental factors can increase the risk of substance misuse as a coping mechanism. These may include:
  • Exposure to trauma
  • Neglect
  • Chaotic family environment
Social circles where substance use is prevalent can also create pressure to conform.

Psychological Factors

Impulsivity, low self-esteem, and difficulty managing stress can make people more susceptible to substance use. The purpose of this is to self-medicate or escape emotional discomfort.

Patterns of Use

Substance use can exist on a spectrum. Below are some important stages of addiction an individual may experience:
  • Experimentation: Trying a substance once or a few times doesn’t necessarily indicate a problem. However, it’s crucial to be aware of the risks involved.
  • Recreational use: Using a substance occasionally in social settings or for personal enjoyment might not lead to dependence, but it can over time.
  • Misuse: Regular use of a substance despite its negative consequences, such as neglecting responsibilities or experiencing health problems, is a sign of misuse.
  • Dependence: This occurs when the body adapts to the presence of a substance and withdrawal symptoms appear when use is stopped. Dependence doesn’t necessarily equate to addiction.
  • Addiction: This is the most severe form of substance misuse. It is characterized by compulsive drug seeking, impaired control over use, and continued use despite negative consequences.

Recognizing the Signs and Symptoms of SUD

Substance use disorder often manifests through a combination of behavioral, physical, and mental health changes. Identifying these signs is crucial for early intervention and providing support.

"According to the latest guidelines in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), a substance use disorder is diagnosed based on specific criteria. The DSM-5 outlines 11 criteria that can help determine the severity of the disorder, which is categorized as mild, moderate, or severe depending on how many criteria are met: 1. Taking the substance in larger amounts or for longer than intended. 2. Wanting to cut down or stop using the substance but not being able to. 3. Spending a lot of time getting, using, or recovering from use of the substance. 4. Cravings and urges to use the substance. 5. Not managing to do what you should at work, home, or school because of substance use. 6. Continuing to use, even when it causes problems in relationships. 7. Giving up important social, occupational, or recreational activities because of substance use. 8. Using substances again and again, even when it puts you in danger. 9. Continuing to use, even when you know you have a physical or psychological problem that could have been caused or made worse by the substance. 10. Needing more of the substance to get the effect you want (tolerance). 11. Development of withdrawal symptoms, which can be relieved by taking more of the substance. To diagnose an SUD, a professional will look at the individual's behavior over the past 12 months. Meeting 2-3 of these criteria typically indicates a mild disorder, 4-5 suggest a moderate disorder, and 6 or more indicate a severe substance use disorder."

Behavioral Indicators

Some of the most common behavioral symptoms associated with substance use disorder include:
  • Neglecting responsibilities at work or home
  • Increased secrecy or isolation
  • Rapid and unexplained changes in mood, including irritability, agitation, or euphoria
  • Withdrawal from family and friends
  • Abandoning hobbies or activities that were previously enjoyed
  • Engaging in risky, impulsive behaviors, such as driving under the influence
  • Increased conflicts with family members, friends, or coworkers

Physical Symptoms

The physical consequences of substance use vary depending on the substance. However, some common signs include:
  • Noticeable decline in personal grooming or physical appearance
  • Frequent illness or a general decline in physical health
  • Appearance of unexplained bruises or injuries
  • Withdrawal symptoms such as shaking, sweating, nausea, and extreme anxiety when not using the substance
  • Needing larger amounts of the substance to feel its effects
  • Experiencing bouts of excessive energy followed by sudden crashes

Impact on Mental Health

Substance use often goes hand in hand with mental health issues. In the US, 21.5 million adults suffer from both substance use and mental health conditions at the same time.6
SUD can exacerbate existing mental health conditions like depression or anxiety. Conversely, mental health issues can increase the risk of substance misuse as a coping mechanism.
Here’s how they can be linked:
  • Self-medication: People with mental health disorders may use substances to alleviate symptoms like anxiety or depression.
  • Substance-induced mental health problems: Chronic substance use can trigger or worsen mental health conditions like psychosis or paranoia.
  • Shared risk factors: Certain biological and environmental factors can contribute to both SUD and mental health disorders.

Treatment Approaches for SUD at New Choices Treatment Center

Treating substance use disorder(s) and any co-occurring mental health challenges involves multiple strategies tailored to individual needs. These approaches help address both the physical and psychological aspects of addiction.

"Treating patients with multiple substance use disorders can be particularly challenging due to the complex nature of their condition. The interactions between different substances can complicate detox and treatment processes. Additionally, patients often face co-occurring mental health issues that need to be addressed simultaneously. Developing a personalized treatment plan that addresses all aspects of their substance use and mental health is crucial for effective recovery. Despite these challenges, comprehensive and tailored care can lead to successful outcomes."


Detoxification is the first step in treating substance use disorders at the New Choices Treatment Center. It involves removing the substance from the body under close medical supervision.
This process helps manage the acute physical symptoms of withdrawal, which can be severe depending on the substance and duration of use.
Medical professionals provide necessary support and medications to ease withdrawal symptoms. The controlled environment also helps prevent immediate relapse during the vulnerable detox phase.
However, detox is not a cure for addiction. It is a foundational part of a comprehensive treatment plan that includes further therapies and support systems.

Therapies Used in Substance Use Disorder Treatment

Several evidence-based therapies can be highly effective in substance use disorder treatment. Some of the most common among them are:

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Cognitive-behavioral therapy is an effective treatment modality for substance use disorder. It focuses on identifying and changing negative thought patterns and behaviors.
CBT helps our clients develop skills to manage stressful situations and triggers without turning to substances. This therapy also promotes self-awareness and emotional regulation.

"Incorporating evidence-based practices involves using scientifically validated approaches throughout the treatment process. This starts with a thorough assessment to develop a personalized treatment plan. We utilize therapies like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) to address the underlying behaviors and thoughts associated with substance use. When appropriate, medications are prescribed to help with detox, reduce cravings, and manage withdrawal symptoms. For patients with co-occurring mental health issues, integrated care is provided to treat both conditions simultaneously. Continuous monitoring ensures the treatment plan remains effective and is adjusted as needed to support the patient’s recovery journey."

Experiential Therapy

Experiential therapy includes activities like art, music, and wilderness therapy. These therapies encourage people to express themselves and process emotions through creative or physical activities.
This therapy can be particularly effective in helping people connect with their emotions and discover new, sober ways to enjoy life.

Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)

Dialectical behavior therapy is often used for clients who experience intense emotions and struggle with relationships.
It teaches skills in four key areas:
  1. Mindfulness
  2. Distress tolerance
  3. Emotion regulation
  4. Interpersonal effectiveness

Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT)

Medication-assisted treatment combines medications with counseling and behavioral therapies to treat substance use disorders. It’s effective for managing addictions to opioids, alcohol, and nicotine. MAT can:
  • Improve survival rates
  • Keep patients in treatment longer
  • Reduce illegal drug use and criminal activity
MAT is not a substitute for therapy. Instead, it is a powerful adjunct that can significantly improve treatment outcomes. It is important to note that the specific medications used in MAT will vary depending on the substance being misused.

Holistic Support for Recovery at New Choices Treatment Center

Holistic support in recovery treats the whole person, not just the addiction. It combines physical, emotional, and spiritual care. This approach helps build overall well-being and supports long-term recovery.
Practices that are part of holistic support include:

Mind-Body Practices

Yoga, meditation, and mindfulness are integral components of holistic recovery. These practices enhance health, reduce stress, and foster emotional stability.
Focusing on breath work, physical poses, and increased mental awareness helps people manage cravings and mood swings. Engaging in these activities also boosts self-awareness and improves the ability to handle stress.
Together, they help navigate the challenges of addiction recovery while maintaining sobriety.

Nutrition and Wellness

Good nutrition plays a crucial role in recovery from substance use disorders. Rebuilding physical health through a balanced diet can enhance the body’s ability to heal and maintain sobriety.
Nutritional therapy focuses on consuming foods that:
  • Restore vital nutrients
  • Support brain health
  • Boost energy levels
This approach helps mitigate the physical damages caused by substance use and strengthens the body’s resilience. This makes it easier for clients to cope with the stresses of recovery.

Social Support

Social support is a cornerstone of effective recovery. Building connections with peers who understand the challenges of addiction can provide emotional support and motivation.
We encourage our clients to take part in recovery groups, support meetings, and community activities. This helps create a sense of belonging and shared purpose.
These networks offer encouragement and accountability, which are vital for long-term recovery. This helps our clients feel less isolated and more empowered to overcome addiction.

Navigating the Recovery Journey

Here are some key aspects to consider when navigating the path to long-term recovery:

Individualized Treatment Plans

Effective SUD treatment plans are not one-size-fits-all. The best approach tailors care to the specific needs and goals of each person.
Our experts consider the following factors when developing a treatment plan:
  • What substances the individual has a history with
  • Severity of addiction
  • Co-occurring mental health conditions
  • Client’s preferences and treatment needs
Developing an individualized treatment plan often involves collaboration between healthcare professionals, therapists, counselors, and sometimes even family members. Regular assessments and adjustments can be made throughout the recovery journey to ensure continued progress.

Setting Realistic Expectations

Recovery is an ongoing journey, not a one-time event. Setting realistic expectations is crucial for long-term success. It’s important to understand that there will be challenges and setbacks.
Recognizing that recovery involves gradual improvement helps maintain motivation and resilience. It’s about progress, not perfection, and learning to manage life’s ups and downs without substance dependence.

Celebrating Milestones

Celebrating milestones is key to sustaining motivation throughout the recovery process. Acknowledging achievements, big or small, reinforces positive behavior and boosts self-esteem.
Whether it’s one week sober, a month, or a year, each milestone is a testament to a person’s commitment to change. Recognizing these successes helps build confidence and encourages continued effort toward long-term recovery goals.
Substance Use Disorder

Helping You Heal With New and Improved Choices

At New Choices Treatment Center, we recognize that recovery is a personal journey that demands a supportive environment. That is why we focus on providing compassionate care.
Our team offers non-judgmental support and respects each person’s dignity. This approach creates a safe space for open discussion about struggles and achievements. As a result, clients feel understood and valued, fostering effective and sustainable recovery.

Empowering the Client's Recovery

Our ultimate goal is to empower clients with the tools, resources, and support systems necessary for lasting sobriety.
This includes:
  • Life skills training
  • Relapse prevention planning
  • Comprehensive aftercare support

Begin Your Journey to Recovery Today

At New Choices Treatment Center, we inspire hope and reinforce the belief that recovery is possible for everyone. By showcasing success stories and providing a supportive community, we encourage clients to envision a future free from addiction.
Our approach is designed to empower and uplift, reminding each person that healing is within reach.

Reach Out for the Support You Deserve

If you or a loved one is facing substance use disorder, don’t hesitate to reach out for help. Contact New Choices Treatment Center now to begin the journey toward recovery.
Our team is dedicated to offering the assistance, encouragement, and direction required to conquer addiction. Take that first step with us today.