Recognizing Signs of Problematic Substance Use
Substance use can be fun and casual but can also become problematic. Learn how to identify when you or a loved one could be facing an addiction.

Written by Room For Her

Published on November 22, 2022
A Black woman sits on the couch looking concerned and stressed out.

Over the pandemic, the use of substances rose, with higher numbers of opioid overdoses and 25.7 per cent of Canadians reporting weekly binge drinking episodes in a survey from the Canadian Mental Health Association (CAMH). Some of these substances come with a higher stigma than others, and some appear more dangerous at face value. For example, 70 per cent of worldwide drug-related deaths are connected to opioid-use.

But even if you’re consuming a substance, like alcohol, that is more socially acceptable to others, that doesn’t mean your habit isn’t getting in the way of your life. “Often an individual may not view substance use as problematic, particularly with alcohol,” says therapist Kiren Sandhu. “Because we grow up seeing others do it, and we think it’s social—so it’s OK.”

We have just as many misunderstandings surrounding the concept of addiction. “We tend to assume that a person has control and that they’re choosing it,” says Sandhu. “So we may not be as empathetic or understanding.” Despite our preconceived notions about substance use, the reality is that when someone’s struggling, it’s almost always not in their control, but there is help.

Signs your substance use is problematic

As Sandhu suggested, because the use of substances is so ingrained in our social lives, it’s not always easy to tell when our use becomes problematic. Below are some signs that your substance use, or the use of a loved one, is becoming problematic.

It’s not a choice: “One of the signs someone is starting to struggle with addiction is that they can’t stop,” says Sandhu. Even if the substance use began as a coping mechanism — a drink or two after a stressful day at work—when you can no longer end the day without a drink, it’s time to pause. “The problem is, it’s not a positive coping strategy,” says Kiren. “It’s a maladaptive one.”

Increased use: When you cannot control your use, the frequency of use will inevitably increase. “The frequency increases because our tolerance increases,” says Sandhu. When a few times a week becomes every day, or when you can’t begin your day without your substance of choice, this is a sign your use has progressed into problematic territory.

Major life impacts: When substance use has gone too far, the consequences radiate into all facets of a person’s life. “Maybe it started as a social drink at lunch or in the evening, but now you’re missing work,” says Sandhu. “It starts to impact our relationships, we start to withdraw or isolate from loved ones, people lose their jobs.” When the use starts to bleed into all other aspects of your life, it’s a sign there’s an issue.

4 tips for dealing with problematic substance use

The first thing to note is this is a very common challenge and that you or your loved one are not alone. “Some people think ‘no one else is experiencing this,’ but we need to normalize talking about it because I think people feel isolated,” says Sandhu. Below are four steps you can take to start working on your relationship with substances.

1. Awareness and acknowledgement

Just recognizing that you have an issue that requires help is a very important first step. “Acknowledgement that it’s problematic is not a minor thing, and it’s a great starting point,” says Sandhu. Even if you’re not yet at a point where you’re ready to change the behaviour, awareness will make a huge difference in your life. “Understanding that this isn’t a reflection of who you are and doesn’t make you a bad person. It’s just saying ‘this isn’t working for me.”

2. Determine your values

Determining your values and what’s important to you can be a great way to see how substance use can be a barrier to the life you want to lead. “I like to ask people what their values are and how the substance use supports you to live a life that centres those values,” says Sandhu. If your career and relationships are important to you, yet your substance use affects those areas of your life, it’s clear it’s not helping you live your best life.

3. Seek support

Substances are highly addictive, and it’s not always easy for someone to handle quitting or cutting back on their own. There are many models of support, like Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, psychotherapy, or in-patient treatment in a rehabilitation facility. There’s no shame in seeking help.

4. Starting the journey

If you’ve acknowledged that your substance use has become problematic, you can start working towards a healthier relationship with substances. Major lifestyle changes always take some adjusting, so start small. Ask yourself why you’re engaging with a substance — what feeling are you seeking? “What other things can I do in my life to feel the same level of joy?” asks Sandhu. “Start to replace the substance use with adaptive coping skills and see how it feels.”

Keep your mind open during this process, as you may not even be aware of why you’re reaching for substances in the first place. Taking a mindfulness approach to your consumption is a great way to slow down. From there, make small changes: Cut back, seek help where you can, and know that you’re not alone.

Disclaimer: This article contains guidelines or advice not intended to self-diagnose or treat. No content should be used as a substitute for direct advice from a qualified professional such as your doctor or mental health professional. Please reach out for support with a certified professional related to the symptoms you may be experiencing.

If you are in crisis and require immediate support, call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room. Alternately, please contact the Canada Suicide Prevention Service at 1 833 456-4566 (en tout temps). 1-833-456-4566 (24/7). For residents of Québec, call1 866 APPELLE (1 866 277-3553).

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