What Is Drug Abuse?

Drug abuse is on the rise during the COVID-19 pandemic, lockdowns have resulted in increased anxiety, financial difficulties and boredom. Many people take drugs to escape the reality of life, but there’s a big difference between abusing drugs, and drug addiction.

Whilst the terms drug abuse and drug addiction are often used interchangeably, in reality there are big differences between those addicted to drugs and those who abuse substances. In its broadest sense, the difference is characterized by the severity of symptoms associated with addiction, and the lack of control the addict has over their drug or alcohol use.

Definition of ‘drug abuse’

Drug abuse can be defined as using legal or illegal substances in ways you shouldn’t and for unhealthy reasons. For example, taking more than you should of your prescribed medication, taking someone else’s prescription, or drinking to excess on a weekend. The motivating factor to your behaviour might be to ease stress or escape reality. An important distinction here, is that you can stop if given enough reason. With drug addiction on the other hand, you cannot stop, no matter how much the desire or the necessity. Addiction is identified as a chronic, relapsing brain disease, characterised by compulsive use of drugs or alcohol, despite harmful and negative consequences.

For the addict, nothing comes before taking that first drink or drug. Not family or friends, the toll it takes on physical or mental health, nor the mounting financial debt that addiction invariably leads to. When you are in active addiction, the urge to seek out and use drugs or alcohol can take up every waking moment of the day. Even if you want to stop, it can feel impossible. Whilst drug addiction is evidently more severe than drug abuse, this isn’t to say that abusing substances is okay or acceptable, or that there won’t be harmful consequences for the person involved. Indeed, drug abuse can eventually lead to addiction.

If you or a loved one is trying to quit drugs, speak to our experienced counsellors at our private rehab facility. We can help assess if you have a drug problem and give you trustworthy advice on how to help.

What is drug addiction?

So what constitutes substance abuse as opposed to full blown addiction? When does something that started out as a bit of fun or an occasional indulgence, become something much darker and more destructive, with negative consequences for everyone involved? Below are the key differences between drug addiction and drug abuse:

  1. Someone suffering from drug addiction will exhibit serious symptoms, whereas substance abuse can appear casual, is often socially acceptable, and is less alarming to onlookers.
  2. Addiction is, in most cases, associated with withdrawal symptoms and detox.
  3. Addiction is a mental illness and a disease. Someone abusing drugs wouldn’t receive this same diagnosis.
  4. An addict will continue using drugs or alcohol despite harmful and negative consequences. When a person is abusing substances, they can stop with sufficient reason.
  5. Addiction creates long-lasting changes in the brain, whereas with drug abuse these changes are brief and fleeting.

Effects of drug abuse on the brain

Another defining feature of addiction is the long-lasting changes that occur in the brain. Repeated use of drugs over a period of time create lasting changes to a person’s neural pathways, some of which can be irreversible. Addictive drugs target what is known as the brain’s reward system, which is responsible for regulating feelings of pleasure. As the drugs flood your brain with dopamine, an intense feeling of pleasure is triggered.

The addict will continue to take the drug in order to chase this high, as the dopamine teaches the brain to repeat pleasurable behaviours. Over time, your brain gets used to the dopamine and comes to expect it, and the addict needs to take more and more of the drug in order to get the same pleasurable effect. So whilst initially drug experimentation is a voluntary behaviour, continuous abuse of drugs impairs brain function and interferes with a person’s ability to exercise self-control over their drug use, eventually leading to addiction. This level of dependency is why any kind of detox, particularly a heroin detox, should be conducted and supervised by medical professional. Drugs can lead to other significant changes in your brain circuitry, affecting your decision-making capabilities and judgment, your memory and ability to learn.

Ruth Elizabeth Montalbetti

Ruth Elizabeth Montalbetti reviewed Providence Projects - 5
10 December 2014  

The foundation that was the spring board for not only me, and my life being completely revolutionised but all of my loved one’s too. A commendable team of staff who’s warm approach loved me when I did not know how to love my self. I will be eternally grateful and thus will my family who got there daughter/sister back from the grips of drug addiction. A safe and secure environment in which revcovery is facilitated and the tools for re intergrating into society are at hand. Much love to my Provvi family as always. Clean and Sober since 20/12/2012 and here is where it started. ... See more

Consequences of drug abuse

At our drug rehab, we have witnessed the numerous consequences to drug addiction: financial losses, the harmful effects on your physical and mental health, and the ripple effect of destruction to the lives of your family and friends too. Although these consequences may be less severe with drug abuse, it’s crucial to recognise them early on, and prevent things from spiralling out of control.


Addiction is expensive and over time can drain your bank account. Regardless of the substance, using or drinking frequently is extremely costly. What’s more, in active addiction it can be hard to hold down a job and so you may not have a steady stream of income to fund your habit. The mounting financial stresses that accompany addiction often cause addicts intolerable stress and anxiety, which only feeds the cycle more and leads to more substance misuse to escape negative feelings.


Using drugs can lead to many social implications, notably isolation and withdrawal from the activities you used to enjoy. It impacts negatively on relationships with friends and family, as your world shrinks to just you and the drugs, and everything else pales in significance.


Drugs reduce your body’s physical capabilities, affecting your breathing, heart rate, muscles, coordination, concentration, senses and brain activity. Regular use of drugs can lead to tolerance, meaning a person requires more and more of the drug to create a similar effect than previously required. This can quickly become dependence, whereby a person feels they cannot function without the drug and it is the central point in their life, around which everything else revolves. Unfortunately, drug addiction often leads to overdose, whereby the level of drug toxicity is too high for the body to handle, overwhelming normal physiological functioning, so the body shuts down.


The toll that drug addiction takes on someone’s mental health shouldn’t be underestimated. Studies have shown a direct link between excessive drug use and mental health issues such as depression, anxiety or psychosis. Similarly, there is a correlation between people with existing mental health conditions having a higher rate of drug use problems.

Whether you think you have a problem with substance abuse, or your addiction is in full-flight, please don’t think of it as a moral weakness or a failing on your part. Addiction is an illness and a mental health disorder. With the right support and treatment, you can live a happy and fulfilling life, drug and alcohol free.

Here at the Providence Projects in Bournemouth, we understand what you’re going through, and the terrible isolation that goes hand in hand with this disease. The good news is that you don’t have to suffer on your own anymore. Through our range of drug treatment programmes, help is available, and there is a way out of the vicious cycle of addiction. If you or a loved one would like more information about a stay at our private rehab clinic and to understand how to take steps towards a long-lasting recovery, then please call us today. You can speak with one of our expert team of addiction counsellors or fill out our quick and easy contact form.