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Substance Abuse: Symptoms & Prevention

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Shattered brown beer bottle: alcoholism conceptWe go to the doctor when we have severe pains, fevers or other physical symptoms. We take vitamins, have routine checkups, exercise and adapt our diets to prevent physical illnesses. As we commemorate Mental Health Awareness Month at The Family Institute, we’re talking to our expert clinicians about the connections between physical and mental health, as well as what can be done to prevent more serious mental illnesses.

Today’s insights on substance abuse come from Amy Drucker, MSMFT, LMFT, an associate marriage and family therapist at The Family Institute at Northwestern University.



Using substances to numb or dull our emotional experience (because guess what, they have that ability to change our physical experiences, and as we’ve discussed physical and mental/emotional health experiences go hand in hand) is not only common, it is arguably an unaddressed epidemic. Substances work very well to numb out the discomfort and unpleasant emotions we may be experiencing. People will turn to substances because they struggle to tolerate the emotional distress they may be feeling. Perhaps at first it was just a mood they were looking to temper, and did so with substances; but quickly, because substances “work well” in altering our experiences and tempering those unpleasant feelings, it can become a state of being that they are looking to temper and they turn to substances.

Substances have a direct effect on our nervous system, digestive system, adrenal system, you name it, the substance affects it! Substances used consistently can permanently alter our physical baseline functioning. Needless to say, substance abuse is an issue that deserves attention.

Some of the symptoms of substance abuse or overuse that should or could be indicators one should seek some type of mental health treatment are as follows:

  • Feeling the “need” to have the substance
  • The substance is the ONLY thing, or one of the only things, that makes you feel better
  • Using the substance more frequently
  • Using the substance earlier in the day
  • If the substance is there, you are unable to say no to it
  • Experiencing negative consequences from using the substance (physically feeling ill, financial losses, interpersonally relationships start receiving less attention, legal ramifications, lower moods–for example–alcohol is a depressant, long term use and one is apt to feel depressed)
  • The substance becomes more important than other realms of your life (work, relationships, health)
  • If you try to conceal the quantity or frequency of your consumption/use of the substance
  • If you start noticing physical side effects from over use of the substance
  • If NOT using the substance leads you to have physical side effects


There is an overwhelming stigma around addiction. If you think that you have a problem with substance abuse, there is no shame is reaching out for help. The shame develops when one does nothing to help themselves, and they begin to believe they deserve a life of addiction. Many people think that addiction is a choice, defined by a lack of will-power; it is my belief that addiction is far more complex than that and substances have a multifaceted impact on humans beings and at a certain point, the power to choose (if that power was ever there in the first place, many argue it is not) to use the substance or not no longer exists. Addiction and alcoholism is intensely isolating, and leaves people feeling helpless and hopeless. When one can recognize their use and/or abuse and be proactive about addressing it, there is hope and a possibility for a different life.


Substances offer temporary relief from whatever is contributing to a person’s unease and emotional distress. As the relief is temporary, the need to use more or use more frequently will undoubtedly become part of the vicious cycle. What one would benefit from doing is to seek more permanent and long term solutions for their emotional/mental health and stability. Some ides of more long-term solution behaviors are:

  • Seeking counseling for learning how to understand and tolerate our emotions more readily (thus the need for the substance to temper distressing emotions diminishes)
  • Seeking the support of loved ones and friends (social support is a huge buffer between individuals and substance abuse)
  • Engaging in activities that boost physical (and simultaneously emotional and mental) health
  • Getting involved in things/hobbies that interest you (a new project at work, an art class, a sports league)


For those who may know their substance abuse has gotten to a point where they need specific and intensive substance abuse help, there are outpatient treatment services, inpatient treatment services, detoxes (if one’s use has become so prevalent they need to be medically monitored as they get the substances out of their system), and spiritual programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, SMART recovery, and others.


The Family Institute at Northwestern University offers affordable counseling for couples, individuals and families at our four Chicagoland locations. Please visit our website to learn more about what we do.

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