At What Point Does Drug Use Become an Addiction?

If you’re like many people, you’ve probably wondered about the distinction between drug use and drug addiction. There isn’t always a clear line between the two; if there were, avoiding addiction would simply be a matter of stopping the use of substances just before addiction comes into play.

Life is rarely this simple, and it must be said that no one sets out to become addicted to a substance. In many respects, the problem here lies with the fact that the line between recreational drug use and addiction is never quite clear to the person engaging in the use of substances.

This is because addiction to a substance works on multiple levels: For example, a person may become psychologically dependent on a substance long before the effects of physical addiction are seen. Yet the results are often the same: Life without the substance becomes increasingly difficult as time passes.

This is because there is often comorbidity between substance abuse disorders and underlying psychological issues in a person’s life. For example, it is very common to see someone with substance abuse issues struggling with another underlying issue such as depression or anxiety.

As you might expect, these problems can become deeply interconnected. Suppose for example that an attorney working for a high-pressure law firm is struggling in their personal life with deep feelings of anxiety. As conflict in their job builds from day to day, the person may seek relief from the pressures of work in substance use.

After a few years working for their employer, the attorney’s body is essentially in constant survival mode. When deadlines loom, they may have difficulty sleeping or might experience stomach problems. But the pressure to succeed and to continue working under these circumstances is also great: The attorney may feel pressure from family members or friends to maintain their job and live up to the requirements of a particular lifestyle.

At first, substances might provide such an individual with feelings of relief. Perhaps substances allow them to sleep or to “shut off” from work-related stressors. At this stage, the person may not be physically addicted to the substances that they are using. But make no mistake: Psychological dependence on substances can be just as destructive at times as physical dependence.

In fact, it is not difficult to see where the real problem lies in this case: It is not the status of addiction that is the issue here; it is that the underlying reasons that the person has for abusing substances will make it difficult to avoid addiction in the long run. The person is using substances to treat an underlying psychological issue: That is, the person engages with substance use to treat what might be termed an anxiety disorder. Symptoms of anxiety disorders include:

  • Persistent and distressing intrusive thoughts
  • Poor sleeping habits
  • Intense fear and avoidance of conflict
  • An intense feeling that something is wrong

As you might imagine, to rely on substances to treat the symptoms of such a disorder is to invite chaos in one’s life: Drugs or alcohol will do nothing to treat underlying issues that must be combatted at the source. To wit, until the person learns to question the beliefs and emotions that exacerbate the underlying issues that they are facing, they will simply be stuck in an endless cycle of self-medication and worsening symptoms. It is a situation that simply cannot sustain itself.

This is also why rehabilitation centers don’t just focus exclusively on the use of substances by patients. By and large, individuals who struggle with substance abuse disorders benefit most from treatment when they learn to manage underlying conditions that the use of substances are meant to quell.

In other words, it is not so much that the distinction between drug use and drug addiction isn’t important; the line between mental dependence on substances and physical dependence on substances can certainly seem extraordinarily intense to someone suffering in the throes of physical addiction.

Instead, the real issue is that an untreated condition related to depression or anxiety will make drug use a losing battle in the long-term.

To wit, a person who is using substances to manage an underlying mental health condition is creating a self-medication regimen for themselves that cannot last and cannot be effective: As their tolerance for a substance builds and their physical dependence on a substance grows, the person will find that they are now fighting multiple battles at once: Instead of fighting against an anxiety disorder, in other words, they are now fighting both their anxiety disorder and against their physical dependence on a substance.

Simply put, it certainly is worth questioning whether a substance abuse issue has developed into a full-blown state of physical addiction. But when the causes of a substance abuse problem go untreated, any amount of substance abuse can become a deadly game. And as the saying goes, the game is simply not worth the candle. Call us at 833-846-5669.