Decoding Substance Use Disorder Symptoms:
A Roadmap to Recovery

Learn how to identify substance use disorder symptoms in yourself and others in this comprehensive article.
Table of Contents

Introduction to the Complexity of Substance Use Disorder Symptoms

At Mind Body Optimization (MBO), we know that substance use disorder (SUD) symptoms manifest physically, psychologically, and emotionally. This is why we provide a whole-person, integrative approach to address the complex nature of these symptoms.
Our dedicated and compassionate team collaborates to identify early signs of an individual’s mental health struggles. This helps us provide personalized and proactive treatments for SUD symptoms.
substance use disorder symptoms

General SUD Statistics

Below are some statistics relating to SUD that showcase the need for being able to recognize signs of early substance use disorder symptoms:
  • Drug overdose deaths in the US since 2000 are nearing one million.1
  • 13,592 people died in crashes involving an alcohol-impaired driver in Texas from 2009-2018.2
  • More than 50% of people with an SUD relapse after treatment.3
Our team at MBO is aware of how dangerous substance use disorder symptoms can be, which is why we’re here to guide you and your loved ones towards whole-person wellness.

Understanding Substance Use Disorder Symptoms

SUD symptoms include the psychological, behavioral, and physical changes that come with substance misuse.
Below are some of the criteria of being diagnosed with a substance use disorder according to the official Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5):4
  • Using more of a substance than one intended, or using it for longer than a person is meant to.
  • Trying to cut down or stop using the substance but being unable to.
  • Experiencing an intense urge to use the substance.
  • Needing more of the substance to get the desired effect, which is also called developing a tolerance.
  • Developing withdrawal symptoms when unable to take the substance.
  • Neglecting home, work, or school responsibilities because of substance use.
  • Giving up important social and recreational activities because of substance use.
  • Using substances in unsafe situations that put the person in danger.
  • Continuing to use the substance even if it harms one’s physical and mental health.

Classifying SUD Symptoms According to Severity

Substance use disorders become more serious as they continue to go untreated. The SUD criteria identified in DSM-5 allow health professionals to determine how severe an SUD is.
For example:
  • One symptom could show that a person is at risk 
  • Two or three criteria points show a mild substance use disorder 
  • Four or five symptoms indicate a moderate level of substance use disorder 
  • Six or more criteria show a severe level of SUD, signaling an addiction 

Common Signs of SUD

The signs of SUD often include physical and behavioral symptoms:

Physical Substance Use Disorder Symptoms

Below are some physical manifestations of substance use disorders:
  • Sudden weight loss changes 
  • Bloodshot or glazed eyes 
  • Skin changes 
  • Sleep problems 
  • Changes in hygiene 

Behavioral Signs of Substance Use

Excessive intake of some drugs influences people’s behavior by changing their thought patterns, along with their ability to focus or think clearly.
Below are some of the behavioral changes associated with substance abuse:
  • Changes in attitude and personality
  • Increased aggression or irritability
  • Dramatic changes in habits and or priorities 
  • Changes in social network 
  • Depression  or anxiety
  • Feeling tired or unmotivated 
  • Lack of pleasure or interests 
  • Difficulty completing daily activities 
  • Feeling easily overwhelmed 
  • Changes in mood (including mood swings or excessive fear, worry, and agitation) 

Impact of Substance Use Disorder Symptoms on Mental Health and Overall Well-Being

Below is a breakdown of how SUD affects the following areas of one’s life:

Mental Health

Substance use disorder often changes an individual’s brain chemistry, disrupting cognition, memory, impulse control, and decision-making. People experiencing SUD may experience feelings of anxiety or depression.


SUD may affect people’s relationships with family members, friends, and romantic partners. It may also lead to conflict and communication breakdowns. Loved ones may feel frustrated and emotionally distressed while trying to support someone with SUD.

Overall Well-Being

People with SUD may go through severe physical health conditions, such as cardiovascular and respiratory issues. They may also experience emotional and social strain. For example, they may become easily overwhelmed, anxious, and depressed. 
They may also withdraw from social settings or supportive communities. 

Identifying the Root Causes of Substance Use Disorder Symptoms

The exact cause of developing a SUD is unknown. However, different factors can lead to its development.
Below are some possible underlying causes:
  • Genetics: If the parents or siblings of a person have SUD, the individual may experience it as well. Children of parents with SUD have a high risk of experiencing it due to genetics and environmental influence.
  • Environmental Factors: Peer pressure and the social acceptance of substance use can contribute to the development of SUD.
  • Psychosocial Stressors: Stressful life events such as relationships, financial, and work-related challenges can influence the development of SUD symptoms.
  • Trauma: People who are exposed to traumatic events like physical, sexual abuse, or neglect may use substance abuse as a coping mechanism. 
  • Co-occurring Mental Health Disorders: Psychological disorders like depression, anxiety, or PTSD can trigger substance abuse. People may use its rewarding effects to escape from how they feel.

"Substance use disorder symptoms can present uniquely in individuals with co-occurring mental health conditions. Often, the symptoms of substance use disorder intertwine with the manifestations of the underlying mental health condition, creating a complex interplay. For instance, someone with depression may turn to substances as a coping mechanism, exacerbating both conditions. At Mind Body Optimization, we understand the intricate relationship between substance use disorder and mental health, employing an inclusive approach that addresses both aspects simultaneously. By treating the individual as a whole and recognizing the interconnectedness of their symptoms, we strive to provide comprehensive care tailored to each patient's specific needs."

Uncovering Root Causes of SUD

At MBO, we assess SUD beyond physical and behavioral symptoms – we also work hard to identify possible underlying causes through a holistic assessment.
Understanding people’s experiences allows us to explore the chances of unresolved trauma, psychosocial stressors, or re-occurring mental health conditions.
We tailor the treatment plans to people’s unique experiences, needs, and goals. Our personalized treatments manage root causes and general symptoms for total wellness.

The Cognitive and Behavioral Symptoms of SUD

Cognitive and behavioral symptoms are processes (thoughts, beliefs, perceptions) and patterns that reveal the presence of mental health conditions.
SUD is often associated with cognitive distortions, which increases the development of the disorder.

Below are some cognitive and behavioral symptoms of SUD:

  • Impulsivity: People with SUD may take substances without thinking about the negative effects. They may also engage in other impulsive behaviors like reckless driving or overspending.
  • Risk-taking behaviors: People with SUD may partake in dangerous actions or take substances in risky situations, such as when they’re driving.
  • Poor decision-making: Those with SUD may prioritize immediate rewards over long-term goals. They may also struggle to assess risks.

Addressing Substance Use Disorder Symptoms With CBT

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is an evidence-based approach to treating various symptoms associated with SUD.
Below is how CBT is applied to assess these symptoms:
  • Identifying triggers: CBT helps people identify the triggers that lead them towards substance use. Self-monitoring and journaling are some of the techniques used to identify those triggers. 
  • Challenging distorted thinking patterns: CBT helps people challenge distorted thought patterns, like black-and-white thinking.5
  • Developing copy mechanisms: People receive the coping skills to manage their triggers through CBT. Relaxation techniques and social skills training are coping mechanisms that help with cognitive and behavioral symptoms. 
  • Addressing Underlying Beliefs and Emotions: CBT explores underlying beliefs and feelings that influence substance abuse. It involves assessing past traumas, negative self-perceptions, and unmet emotional needs. 
  • Relapse Prevention: CBT helps people develop relapse prevention strategies to maintain recovery over the long term. This may include creating a relapse prevention plan and identifying early signs of relapse.

"At Mind Body Optimization, we employ a comprehensive approach to managing substance use disorder symptoms while addressing underlying mental health challenges. Our treatment plans integrate evidence-based therapies such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), and mindfulness-based practices. Additionally, we emphasize natural healing interventions such as nutritional counseling, meditation, and stress reduction techniques to promote overall well-being. By combining traditional and more alternative, complementary modalities, we aim to provide our patients with a personalized treatment experience that addresses the root causes of their struggles while fostering sustainable recovery."

Addressing Substance Use Disorder Symptoms with DBT

Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) is another evidence-based approach that is adapted to treat substance use disorder symptoms. DBT helps individuals make lasting lifestyle modifications for lasting growth and healing.

Below is how DBT can be utilized to treat individuals with SUD:

  • Mindfulness: DBT helps people practice mindfulness by making them aware of their thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations. This helps them observe their triggers without acting on them. 
  • Emotional Regulation: Many people experiencing SUD struggle with intense and dysregulated emotions. DBT teaches them to identify, understand, and control how they feel. This helps them manage situations and regulate their emotions without using substances as an escape.
  • Interpersonal Relationships: DBT helps people improve their interpersonal and social relationships by teaching them assertiveness, communication, and conflict-resolution skills.

"At Mind Body Optimization, we recognize the crucial role of lifestyle modifications in alleviating substance use disorder symptoms and fostering long-term recovery. Our approach emphasizes the integration of healthy habits such as regular exercise, balanced nutrition, adequate sleep, and stress management techniques into our patients' daily routines. These lifestyle modifications not only support physical health but also contribute to improved mental well-being and emotional resilience. By empowering individuals to adopt healthier lifestyles, we aim to equip them with the tools necessary to navigate challenges and sustain their recovery journey."

Physical and Behavioral Substance Use Disorder Symptoms

The physical and behavioral symptoms of SUD vary based on the substance used.
However, some of the most common physical and behavioral symptoms of SUD are:
  • Central Nervous System (CNS) Effects: Many substances affect the central nervous system. For example, stimulants like cocaine increase alertness and energy levels, while depressants like opioids make people feel sedated. 
  • Respiratory Effects: Substances like opioids can slow down breathing, damaging the respiratory system.
  • Withdrawal Symptoms: Someone with SUD may experience withdrawal symptoms when they stop or reduce their dosage. These symptoms may be mild or severe, depending on the individual’s length of use. 
  • Physical Dependence: This happens when the body begins to need a substance to function normally. People with these symptoms often start to take higher doses to avoid withdrawal symptoms, leading to further health issues.  

Medication-Assisted Treatments for Managing Substance Use Disorder Symptoms

Medical detoxification and medication-assisted treatments help people withdraw from substances and manage their triggers safely. They also reduce the risks of relapse.

What Is Medical Detox?

Medical detoxification involves withdrawing from substances under medical supervision. Besides medical care, people undergoing this treatment receive psychosocial support through therapy and counseling.

Medication-Assisted Treatment

Medication-assisted therapy (MAT) uses FDA-approved medication with counseling and behavioral therapies to treat SUD. These medications help people manage their cravings and reduce withdrawal symptoms.
MAT helps people recover from various types of disorders, including opioid use disorder (OUD) and alcohol use disorder (AUD). It can also be used for stimulant use disorder and dual diagnosis.

Social and Environmental SUD Symptoms

Social isolation, withdrawal from activities, and strained relationships are some of the social and environmental symptoms of SUD.
These can affect individuals in the following ways:
  • People with SUD may isolate themselves from social interactions and engagement. This may be because of a lack of interest, stigma, or because their primary focus is using substances.
  • People may withdraw from activities they used to enjoy or choose to take substances over other activities. 
  • SUD may strain people’s relationships with their family, friends, and colleagues. They may even become irritable and distance themselves emotionally from their loved ones. 

Addressing Social and Environmental Symptoms of SUD

Here are some of the ways to manage the social and environmental substance use disorder symptoms:
  • Family Therapy: Family therapies focus on improving communication, resolving conflicts, and rebuilding trust within the family. It helps family members understand SUD dynamics, develop coping strategies, and create boundaries.
  • Peer Support Groups: Peer support groups create a safe space for people to share their struggles and receive encouragement. They also learn from others’ experiences and have a sense of belonging. 
  • Community Involvement: People are encouraged to engage with the community by joining community-based recovery programs and volunteer groups. This helps them build connections, receive support, and grow personally. 
substance use disorder symptoms

Taking the Next Steps Toward Recovery

Once you’ve identified SUD symptoms, the next step is reaching out for the support you need. At MBO, we’re here to help you or a loved one with SUD symptoms attain well-being with a comprehensive and personalized treatment approach.
We work with you to understand your condition’s symptoms and underlying causes while also helping you identify your needs and goals. We then tailor our evidence-based therapies and holistic treatment programs for your healing.
We know everyone experiencing SUD can reclaim their power and live the lives they truly want. Our aim at MBO is to give you all the support you need as you do so. Let’s walk with you on your path to well-being.

Pave a Path Worth Following

Ready to make a positive change in your life? Reach out to our MBO team today. We’re here to help you thrive.