What Is the Substance Use Spectrum?

Mar 21, 2022

There is a difference between a substance use disorder (SUD) – long-term or excessive use of substances leading to mind and body dependency – and casual or infrequent alcohol or drug use. When people think of those with an alcohol or drug use disorder, they can assume a person went from occasional use to an SUD quickly. Yet, that’s not how an SUD occurs. An SUD occurs gradually. 

Not everyone who uses a substance will develop an SUD. For example, some won’t drink excessively or go above the recommended use of a prescription painkiller. However, the spectrum of substance use can help you identify where you are and if you have an SUD.

Perceptions of People With an SUD

The report “The World Drug Perception Problem explains how perception, stigmas, and a lack of understanding can overlook the root causes of alcohol or drug use. The reasons why a person turns to substances vary. For some, situational, mental health, or genetic factors can increase the risk of an SUD. Unfortunately, people generally view an SUD with the assumption that a person is morally or psychologically “weak” or simply lacks morals. Because some don’t see an alcohol or drug use disorder as an illness, an SUD is viewed as an individual’s problem. 

Spectrum of Use

The idea of a person socially or casually taking a substance and becoming addicted to it within a brief period isn’t correct. Instead, think of substance use in how you feel about mental health disorders, such as anxiety or depression. Therapists diagnose depression or anxiety on a spectrum. Much like depression and anxiety, substance use is evaluated on a spectrum. Because some may start taking substances occasionally or socially, their use can escalate over time. In contrast, others can begin substance use to address physical pain (prescriptions) or socially and never increase their use. 

When people discuss substance use, the conversation often goes to the extremes. The two extremes are: 

  • Abstinence (a person doesn’t drink or take drugs under any circumstances)
  • Substance Use Disorder 

Yet, most people don’t fall into those extremes. The World Health Organization (WHO), National Institute on Alcohol and Alcoholism (NIAAA), and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) conducted studies showing that most of those who drink fall somewhere between the two extremes.  

Where Am I on the Spectrum?

You may ask yourself where on the spectrum you fall. Although there are several ways, including online screening tests, to determine where you are on the spectrum, screening from a professional is advised in order to get the most accurate feedback. For example, you can schedule an appointment with a substance addiction treatment center and talk with one of their staff members. Often, the counselor will use a screening tool to assess where you fall and provide you with information about your place on the spectrum.

The majority of the screening tools rely on self-reporting. If you take a substance use assessment, the results depend on how you answer the questions. When you’re at the point where you want to take a screening test, you may be ready to seek help. So, the chance you will be dishonest on screening tests is minimal.

The questions focus on substances’ effects on your quality of life, well-being, and relationships. Some of the questions on a substance use assessment include:

  • Did you ever think you should reduce or stop your substance use?
  • Have your loved ones criticized or shown concern about your alcohol or drug use?
  • Do you feel guilty or ashamed during or after you use a substance?
  • Do you ever use a substance to help you cope with emotions or a hangover?

The Four Aspects of a Substance Use Disorder

A diagnosis of a SUD means you experience the following:

  • The urge to use a substance — You crave the feeling or effects of the substance. Cravings are often difficult to cope with and require healthy coping skills learned in therapy.
  • Loss of control — You no longer can regulate the amount or frequency of use.
  • Feeling compelled — The need to use a substance overshadows rational thinking.
  • Disregard the consequences — You continue to use a substance despite any harmful effects. These effects can include risky behaviors, as well as legal, work, or relationship issues.

These aspects of an SUD explain why it is challenging to quit using alcohol or drugs. Chemicals found in substances affect and have a hold on your brain and body. When you decide to stop using a substance, you will require help from substance addiction professionals.

Living With an SUD

If you’re diagnosed with an SUD, don’t lose hope. While you’re in a substance addiction treatment center, your therapist can guide you to understand how substances affect your mind and body. While you’re in treatment, you can discover ways to control harmful thoughts and feelings. In addition, individual therapies like the Therapeutic Community Model are there to help you find the strength you’ve always had. 

A substance use disorder is considered a chronic relapsing disorder. Once you complete treatment, you should become involved in a 12-Step program in your community and participate in an aftercare or alumni group. 

Not everyone who uses a substance has a substance use disorder. Many people can drink alcohol or take their pain prescriptions without becoming addicted. However, some will gradually increase the frequency or amount of their use of alcohol or drugs. If you notice a gradual uptick in your use, you can assess if you need to enter a substance addiction treatment center. The spectrum of substance use is a way to gauge your alcohol or drug use. The spectrum includes everything from abstinence to a substance use disorder. You can go online to find a screening or contact a professional. Renaissance Ranch Treatment Centers provides an assessment to discover what type of therapy may benefit you most. We understand not everyone requires inpatient treatment, so we offer outpatient and online intensive outpatient treatment services. Even when you complete active treatment, we’re here for you. Our sober living and alumni group can guide you. To schedule an appointment, call (801) 308-8898.