What is Substance Addiction? By Stella Kimbrough


Sometimes when people think of substance addiction, they imagine extreme compulsive and habitual use of substances that results in severe negative consequences. Substance addiction, however, can look different from person to person. Substance addiction, or substance use disorder as it’s classified in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5 th edition, refers to certain patterns of behavior related to using substances that lie on a continuum from mild to severe. People with a substance use disorder experience significant impairment or distress as a result of their substance use. There are specific symptoms associated with substance use disorder, which may include varying degrees of the following:

Addiction Symptoms

  •  The individual may take the substance in larger amounts or over a longer period than was originally intended

  •  The individual may want to cut down or stop the substance use and may have multiple unsuccessful attempts to decrease or discontinue use

  •  The individual may spend a great deal of time obtaining the substance, using the substance, or recovering from its effects

  •  The individual may plan daily activities around the substance use

  •  The individual may experience craving for the substance, which means an intense desire or urge for the drug

  •  The individual may have difficulty fulfilling obligations at work, school, or home

  •  The individual may continue substance use despite having persistent or recurrent social or interpersonal problems caused or exacerbated by the effects of the substance

  •  The individual may stop or become less involved in important social, occupational, or recreational activities because of the substance use

  •  The individual may withdraw from family activities and hobbies in order to use the substance

  •  The individual may use substances in risky or dangerous situations

  •  The individual may continue substance use despite knowledge of having a persistent or recurrent physical or psychological problem that is likely to have been caused or exacerbated by the substance

  •  The individual may be unable to stop using the substance despite negative consequences

  •  The individual may experience tolerance, which means that they need to use more of the substance over time to get the same effect

  •  The individual may experience withdrawal when they suddenly stop taking the substance, which may result in continued substance use to avoid feeling the withdrawal symptoms

  • People with substance addiction may experience the symptoms above with one substance or many different substances to varying degrees.


Some people with substance addiction can have many or all of the above symptoms, and some people have just a couple. Each person with a substance addiction may have different circumstances that led them to use substances, and generally speaking, substance addiction can affect anyone (any gender, any race, any ethnicity, etc.). It is estimated that roughly 5-10% of the population of the United States suffers from substance addiction. Since substance addiction carries a large stigma and many people may never seek treatment, the prevalence rate of addiction may be even higher. It is also true that substance addiction is associated with certain brain changes that remain long after the individual has stopped taking the substance. For example, a person may experience an intense craving or urge to use the substance when they are around the substance or when they are reminded of the substance. Additionally, people with substance addiction problems are vulnerable to returning to substance use after a period of sobriety, or relapsing. Relapse rates for drug addiction (40%-60%) are similar to other chronic illnesses such as type 1 diabetes (30%-50%) and asthma (50%-70%).

Stella Kimbrough, MSW, LSW

Stella Kimbrough, MSW, LSW

Stella Kimbrough is a Licensed Social Worker who specializes in providing substance abuse counseling to individuals who struggle with addiction. She uses a strengths based perspective and utilizes concepts from CBT, DBT motivational interviewing and psychodynamic therapy. If you’re ready to schedule an appointment in Bryn Mawr or Philadelphia, contact her now, click here.