What Is The Difference Between A Substance Use Disorder And Partying?

Medically reviewed by Paige Henry
Updated December 18, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Note: While everyone may experience the issues mentioned in this article, please note that as part of our initiative responding to the APA Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Boys and Men (2018), these articles will focus on how these topics affect men and boys. We use “men” to refer to people who identify as men.

If you are struggling with substance use, contact the SAMHSA National Helpline at (800) 662-4357 to receive support and resources.

Partying is often seen as a way to socialize, have fun, and unwind. Many people party, and party culture can involve drinking, using substances, or spending time with those that do. However, there may be a time that partying coincides with unhealthy substance use. In these cases, knowing the difference between a substance use disorder and a healthy habit can be valuable.

Getty/Vadym Pastukh
It Can Be Challenging To Let Go Of Substances

What Are Substance Use Disorders?

Substance use disorders (SUD) are conditions within the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) describing dependencies and addiction to substances. Diagnosis often requires the presence of impaired control, social impairment, risky use, tolerance, and withdrawal. 

There may be four stages of SUD, beginning with experimentation and ending with chemical dependency and substance addiction. Treatment can include staying at rehabilitation centers, joining support groups, and engaging in different types of therapy. 

SUD often starts with experimentation in social situations, like parties. Sometimes, it can begin with prescribed medications, such as opioids. Depending on the substance, it may take a more extended amount of time to experience addiction. As substance use continues, you may require more significant doses to feel the same effects. You might also notice that your sense of well-being depends on the substance. 

Early Signs Of Substance Use Disorders

Substance use disorders can be hard to spot in yourself and others. Individuals with these disorders may downplay and hide their symptoms. Below are a few signs:

  • Intense urges to use the substance that make it challenging to focus on other areas
  • Using the substance frequently, daily, or multiple times a day
  • A tolerance increase, causing you to take more of the substance to get the desired effects
  • Difficulty in personal relationships due to substance use
  • Avoiding or neglecting responsibilities at work, school, and home
  • A change in hobbies or activities to consume substances
  • Changes in appetite, sleep patterns, appearance, and personal grooming
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when going without the substance

Causes Of Substance Use Disorders

The exact causes of substance use disorders are inconclusive. However, there may be a few factors that contribute. For example, environmental factors like family, friends, and childhood experiences can play a part. Being exposed to caregivers who used substances during your childhood is an example. 

Genetic traits can also play a factor. A family history of substance use can cause you to be at a higher risk. Other factors, like stress, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and depression, may also be related. 

What Are The Requirements For A SUD Diagnosis? 

There are four main categories involved in diagnosing substance use disorder. The diagnosis may be based on pathological behaviors regarding using certain substances. In this instance, the use of the word pathological can refer to behaviors that are difficult to control and happen regularly.

Impaired Control 

Impaired control can involve using the substance for extended periods or at higher doses than intended. Impaired control can also include unsuccessfully reducing use, intense cravings, and excessive time obtaining, using, and recovering from the substance.

Social Impairment 

Social impairment can affect an individual’s relationships and obligations. This impairment can involve poor work or school performance, loss of personal relationships, and giving up meaningful social and recreational activities.

Risky Use

Risky use can lead to difficulty reducing substance consumption despite the adverse consequences. Some examples may include driving under the influence, smoking cigarettes after experiencing health complications, or engaging in risky sexual activities.

Tolerance And Withdrawal

Tolerance and withdrawal are often indicators of advanced substance use disorders. People may experience an increased tolerance differently, but someone experiencing these symptoms may increase their substance use to get their desired results. Withdrawal is the body’s response to abruptly stopping substance consumption after developing a tolerance. These symptoms can vary based on the substance used, and some withdrawal symptoms can be dangerous. 


What Is The Difference Between A Substance Use Disorder And Partying? 

Partying or using substances occasionally does not necessarily equate to a substance use disorder. For example, having a drink with your friends on the weekends would not be considered a substance use disorder. The difference can lie in overindulgence and frequency.

When substance use starts to take hold of you mentally or physically, that can indicate a problem. If you are experiencing urges, withdrawal symptoms, or increasing your use, it may be valuable to consider support. 

What Are The Stages Of Substance Use Disorder? 

There can be a general lifecycle throughout a substance user’s consumption. Some people may not progress past the experimentation stage. Others might go through each stage. Consider the following stages when examining your behaviors with substances. 

Stage One: Substance Experimentation

Substance experimentation may not necessarily lead to a substance use disorder but can be the first stage. In this stage, the person is experimenting with new types of substances. Social situations and environmental factors, like college education, could lead to experimentation.

Experimentation can be risky when the person is experiencing a challenging or vulnerable period of their life. This stress may contribute to more frequent use. Another risk factor can be positive results, such as stress relief or peer acceptance due to a substance. Some people continue using a substance to continue to receive these positive results. 

Stage Two: Social Or Regular Use

Stage two can be a challenging stage to determine. Some people engage in occasional substance use and do not become dependent. However, the risk of dependency can increase during this stage. Regular use of substances can increase the likelihood of risky behavior and activities. Risky behavior could include driving under the influence, displaying emotional volatility, and engaging in high-risk sexual behavior.

During this stage, looking for physical and psychological symptoms of withdrawal can be helpful. You might monitor your behavior, energy levels, and priorities. Isolating yourself from friends and family and feeling shame about your behavior may indicate an underlying concern. 

Stage Three: Risky Use

Moving from stage two to stage three can happen rapidly. You may not even notice it in yourself or the people you love. During stage three, the person may prioritize the substance over other areas of their life. They may be unaware or unafraid of the potential consequences of their substance use.

They might feel psychologically and physically dependent on the substance during this stage. They may experience fatigue, irritability, depression, and other symptoms if they go without the substance.

Due to the positive reinforcement they may have felt during the first two stages of a substance use disorder, they may become frustrated when rewards are less available. Repeated exposure and substance use often activate the user’s reward system, causing them to crave the substance more intensely. 

Stage Four: Chemical Dependencies And Substance Addiction

Stage four is the final stage of a substance use disorder. Characteristics of this stage may include continuous substance use despite the consequences, poor performance at work and home, adverse effects on physical and mental health, and criminal activity.

People can experience a loss of personal relationships during this stage. At times, a person living with substance use disorder may reach a breaking point and enter recovery. This breaking point might involve an arrest, near-death experience, losing a loved one, or experiencing another significant or traumatic event.

During this stage, having a support system in the form of peers and family members can be crucial. Often, the person living with SUD experiences physical brain changes in their reasoning and cognitive functioning centers that can make it challenging to grasp and take responsibility for their actions.

Treatments For SUD

If your substance use influences your physical and mental health and affects your everyday life, there are a few professional treatment options you can consider, including the following:

  • Behavioral Therapy: An evidence-based form of psychotherapy that can give you tools and strategies to manage substance use disorder and relapse 
  • Support Groups: Groups using a 12-step model, including AA and NA
  • Talk Therapy: Professional support in diagnosis, treatment planning, trauma-informed care, and mental health advice 
  • Rehabilitation Centers: A form of outpatient care to rehabilitate patients so they can live and function on their own. These centers may include detox support with a medical team 

Exploring Gender Differences In Substance Use

Although anyone can experience mental illness, it is often overlooked in men due to mental health and gender stigmas. These stigmas include public stigma (the belief that mental illness means weak character) and self-stigma (when men and boys internalize public stigma and feel shame regarding their symptoms).

Traditionally, society has tied men’s value to achievement and stoicism, or the endurance of hardship, without talking about their emotions or expressing themselves when they are having a hard time. It may be more acceptable for women to express sadness, fear, vulnerability, and tenderness. However, all humans (regardless of gender) experience these emotions throughout their lives. Research shows that blocking or ignoring complicated feelings can harm our physical health

Mental health professionals might not diagnose mental illnesses like depression in men because men may mask depression with externalizing behaviors like aggression and substance use. Men are two to three times more likely than women to misuse substances to cope with mental health conditions. 

Understanding these gender differences in substance use can be crucial to find solutions. For some, it may be essential to recognize that it is brave to reach out for support as a man. You’re not alone and not weak for asking for help. 

Getty/Vadym Pastuk
It Can Be Challenging To Let Go Of Substances

Counseling Options 

Admitting you may be struggling with a substance use disorder and want to address it can be the first step in overcoming symptoms. However, reaching out for help can often be challenging. Sometimes, choosing to get professional support from the comfort of your home may feel more convenient than attending a therapy session in person. In these cases, online therapy through a platform like BetterHelp can be an alternative. 

As one literature review explains, several studies have shown that online therapy for substance use can be as effective as in-person therapy. The studies included in the review focused on pathological gambling, tobacco addiction, and substance addiction. Participants experienced positive treatment effects after treatment and at a longer-term follow-up.

When you sign up for an online platform, you can often get matched within 48 hours. Through some platforms, you have 24/7 service, with the option to message them at any time with questions. You can also choose between phone, video, or chat therapy sessions once a week. 


Substance use disorders are mental illnesses resulting from various environmental and biological factors. A diagnosis may be made when social impairment, risky use, impaired control, tolerance, and withdrawal are all present. Treatment for substance use disorder can involve therapy, support groups, and rehabilitation centers. If you live with SUD, consider contacting a therapist for support.

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