Substance Misuse vs. Substance Abuse

Reading Time: 4 Minutes

Individuals often interchangeably misuse the terms “substance misuse and substance abuse” and although these terms are related on a spectrum, there are stark differences between them.


Substance misuse often refers to prescription medication but also can refer to alcohol and other drugs such as marijuana. Substance misuse is defined as taking a drug for a purpose that is not consistent with legal or medical guidelines. In other words, substance misuse is the use of alcohol, illegal drugs, or over-the-counter or prescription medications in a way that they are not meant to be used. This can include consuming more alcohol than intended such as binge drinking or using marijuana on a regular basis in order to self-medicate from symptoms of anxiety. Other examples of substance misuse include the following:

● Taking the incorrect dose
● Taking the drug at the wrong time
● Forgetting to take a dose
● Stopping the use of a drug too soon
● Taking a drug for reasons other than why they were prescribed
● Taking a drug that was not prescribed to you

Can substance misuse lead to addiction?

Substance misuse is not the same as addiction, otherwise known as substance use disorder. However, substance misuse can have the potential to lead to a substance use disorder, especially if the substance is misused continuously over time. The reason that people engage in activity that can become addictive in the first place is to experiment, because of the social environment, to achieve a feeling of euphoria or to relieve an emotional state of unease or dissatisfaction. When individuals misuse alcohol or drugs, it gives them the euphoric high, the relief or reward that they are seeking. This high is the result of a release of dopamine in the brain. After the drug is metabolized in the body and the dopamine is depleted, the individual often wants more of the euphoric feeling which can result in continual misuse of the substance. When this reward-seeking behavior becomes uncontrollable or compulsive, misuse most likely has crossed over into addiction, otherwise known as a substance use disorder. However, it is important to keep in mind that not all individuals who misuse a substance will develop a substance use disorder.

Defining substance abuse

Substance use disorder is the formal medical term for addiction. It is defined as the compulsive misuse of a substance despite the harmful consequences to the individual’s health, finances, and relationships. The first time an individual misuses drugs or alcohol is often a personal choice, but after a while, drug misuse rewires the brain making it particularly difficult to cut down or stop using due to intense creating urges and cravings. Therefore, a substance use disorder or addiction is not a choice but rather a medical disorder.

Substance use disorder symptoms
● Drug-seeking, securing, and using behaviors that develop into a priority
● Continuing using drugs despite harmful consequences
● Uncontrollable use (having trouble reducing or stopping use)
● Neglecting social and work obligations because of drug use
● Brain changes in areas that are critical for judgment, decision-making, learning, memory, and behavior control

Treatment for substance use disorders

Treatment for substance use disorders aims at treating the underlying thoughts, triggers, and behaviors that lead the individual to substance misuse. These could be past trauma, depression, anxiety, extreme stress, financial turmoil, loneliness, or underlying medical complications. Recognizing and working through these underlying stressors can help the individual learn and adopt positive coping skills to help deal with future crises and overcome urges and cravings that could result in a relapse.

Substance use disorders are treatable, and recovery is often a lifelong journey as cravings and urges tend to pop up when least expected. Treatment varies from inpatient to outpatient support depending on the severity of the substance use disorder, the specific abused substance, and the presence of co-occurring mental health disorders. Each treatment level of care offers many options. Treatment options include detoxification, family-based interventions, medication-assisted treatment, peer support or recovery service groups, and many psychotherapy approaches such as cognitive behavior therapy. The purpose of substance use disorder treatment is for the individual to stop using drugs for the long term and to contribute to society, in the family, and at work. Treatment looks different for each individual, and the right treatment for that individual means the following:

● They can access treatment
● They can commit to the treatment plan
● Their treatment plan will help them achieve and maintain their recovery

About AKUA Mind and Body

AKUA Mind and Body is a full-service treatment center that provides residential treatment, partial hospitalization, intensive outpatient treatment, outpatient treatment, and virtual treatment to both men and women struggling with a substance use disorder, dependency, a mental health disorder, or both (co-occurring disorder). AKUA Mind and Body provides compassionate, evidence-based treatment to all individuals and families. We combine evidence-based medications and psychotherapy approaches with holistic therapies such as meditation, yoga, and equine therapy, as we believe in treating the mind, body, and spirit.

Our clinical staff and ancillary treatment teams take great pride in the care that we provide to our clients and their families. From intake to discharge, we believe in treating the client as an individual and not just treating the disorder. As a result, we provide individualized treatment plans for every client. We offer our treatment services across many locations in California, including Orange County, Newport Beach, San Diego, and Sacramento.

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