Recognizing Signs of Problematic Substance Use

Signs your relationship with substances requires a rethink, and how to do it

Substance use can be fun and casual, it can be a coping mechanism, and it can become problematic all-too easily. But how do you know when you or a loved one has crossed over into addiction territory?

Over the pandemic, the use of substances rose with higher numbers of opioid overdoses and 25.7 percent of Canadians reporting weekly binge drinking episodes in a survey from the Canadian Mental Health Association (CAMH).

Some of these substances come with higher stigma than others and some appear more dangerous at face value – 70% of worldwide drug-related deaths are connected to opioid-use, for example.

But even if you’re consuming a substance, like alcohol, that is more socially acceptable to others (in 2018 nearly 6 million Canadians age 12 and over reported consumption levels that would classify them as “heavy drinkers”) 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 Inkblot therapist Kiren Sandhu. “Because we grow up seeing others do it. 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

Like Sandhu said, because use of substances is so ingrained in our social lives, it’s not always easy to tell when our use becomes problematic. Here 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’re unable to control your use, it’s inevitable that the frequency of use will 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 out 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.

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. Here are some 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, it doesn’t make you a bad person. It’s just saying ‘this isn’t working for me.”
  2. Determine Your Values: In fact, that’s one of the first questions Sandhu asks her clients—“how is that working for you?” Determining your values and what’s important to you can be a great way to see all the ways 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 is supporting you to live a life that centres those values,” says Sandhu. If your career and your relationships are important to you, yet your substance use is affecting 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 taking those steps towards a healthier relationship to substances—be that reduction, or quitting altogether. But major changes in lifestyle always take some adjusting, so start small. Ask yourself in the moment why you’re engaging with a substance—what feeling are you seeking? “What are some other things I can 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, and question if a substance is the right answer to your current problem.

From there, make small changes: Cut back, seek help where you can, and know that you’re not alone.


Kiren Sandhu

Kiren Sandhu is a Toronto-based therapist on the Inkblot Platform with over 12 years of clinical experience in mental health and addictions settings. You can begin working with her by using her referral code “KIREN.”