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  • Lisa Atkins


Updated: Jun 7, 2023

Substance abuse is a very serious problem and involves any misuse of substances to cope with and numb negative emotions, self-medicate to cope with the results of poor mental health, or using a substance to get intoxicated or high. Overuse of alcohol, misuse of prescription drugs, as well as the use of illegal drugs can lead to substance use disorders. This will frequently lead to problems in relationships at home, work, or school as it changes the way a person looks, acts, and feels. The symptoms observed are linked to changes in the body and impact a person’s emotions and behavior. These issues can leave the person using and their loved ones feeling helpless and isolated and unsure of what to do next.

If you are concerned that you or your loved one is using substances in a way that you would consider substance abuse; it’s helpful to know the warning signs and when to seek treatment.

First let’s define substance abuse, now termed substance use disorder. Below are the criteria for substance use disorders as described in the DSM V which is the manual clinicians utilize to diagnose mental health and substance use disorders. These criteria apply to any substance used. If 2-3 symptoms are met, the use disorder is present but considered mild. If 4-5 symptoms are met-moderate. If 6 or more symptoms are met-severe.

· Use resulting in failure to fulfill major obligations (work, school, home).

· Recurrent use where physically hazardous such as driving while impaired, interacting with dangerous individuals to acquire substances, using despite warnings of worsening medical conditions.

· Craving or a strong desire to use.

· Continued use despite recurrent social problems such as the use causing troubles in relationships with others.

· A great deal of time spent getting, using, and/or recovering from the substance use.

· A need for increased amounts in order to achieve a “buzz” or intoxication-in other words building a tolerance.

· Substance is taken to relieve or avoid withdrawal symptoms (feeling sick, sweating, vomiting, or the shakes).

· Unsuccessful efforts to cut down or control use.

· Important hobbies or social or work activities are given up or reduced.

· Continued use despite negative medical or mood issues developing or being worsened by use of the substance.

In addition to the formal criteria, there are common, noticeable signs of escalating substance use.


The overuse of substances on a regular basis can lead to changes in the body. These changes manifest in observable symptoms such as:

· Changes in appetite, eating more or less than usual

· Bloodshot eyes, pupils larger or smaller than usual

· Poor skin tone

· Frequent sniffling, a runny nose

· Slurred speech, rambling, or fast-talking

· Itching

· Constant or recurring illness

· Sudden weight loss/gain

· Lack of interest in personal grooming (not brushing teeth or combing hair, showering, changing, or washing clothes)

· Changes in sleep patterns; sleeping for longer periods or less sleep occurring at different times of the day

· Unusual smells of the breath, body, clothing

· Impaired coordination; unexplained or frequent injuries

· Puffiness

· Persistent cough


The use of substances can change the way people behave. At first these changes many happen infrequently but over time these changes may increase as substance use progresses.

· Isolation-wanting to spend more time alone

· Appearing tired, lack of energy for or interest in daily activities

· Lack of money

· Doctor shopping

· Declining performance at school or work

· Missing appointments or deadlines

· Legal troubles

· Risk taking

· Sudden change in friends or hangouts or changing friends frequently

· Secretiveness

· Losing interest in favorite hobbies or normal activities

Mood & Mindset

Overuse of substances affect the brain resulting in changes in a person’s mood and outlook.

· Irritability

· Depression/Mood swings

· Defensiveness

· Argumentative

· Increasing use to cope with problems, to relax, to sleep, to improve mood

· Poor attitude

· Appears fearful, anxious, or paranoid with no reason

· Forgetfulness, trouble paying attention or concentrating

· Lack of motivation or care


Materials that are associated with concealing, packaging, or using substances may be found in the person’s room, home, clothes, car, or other personal items.

· Lighters

· Wrapping papers

· Pipes

· Razor Blades

· Bongs

· Pieces of straws

· Syringes

· Numerous empty bottles and/or cans of alcohol

It is a common misperception that a person must hit “rock bottom” before they are ready to be helped. In fact, it is harder for people to make positive life changes when they are down, and addiction has developed. It is time to seek help upon noticing any of the above symptoms. If you suspect someone you care about is misusing or overusing substances to cope with life; offer help and ask others to step in if needed so help can be obtained as soon as possible.

At A Helping Hand of Wilmington, our dedicated team of recovery clinicians are committed to helping you and your loved one take that first step towards reclaiming your life. We individually tailor each plan to our clients’ specific needs so that we can provide you with the best possible care. For any needed service we do not provide, we can provide you with referrals to attain whole-person care. We work collaboratively with all resources involved. Call us today, at 910-796-6868, or fill out the form on our website at and we will reach out to you. We are here because we care!

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