The Difference Between Substance Use Disorder And Partying

Updated October 22, 2021

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.

What Is Substance Use Disorder?

Substance use disorder (SUD) is a form of drug addiction. This disease causes a person to have an inability to control the use of legal or illegal drugs. Alcohol, marijuana, and nicotine are all considered drugs.

SUD often starts innocently enough, with experimentation and social situations. In other cases, the disease can begin with prescribed medications such as opioids. The speed at which you get addicted varies from substance to substance. Opioids, amphetamines, and even nicotine are known to be some of the most addictive drugs.

As your use continues, you may need larger doses to feel the same effects of the drug. You might also notice that your sense of well-being is dependent on the drug. You may also find it challenging to go without the substance. These symptoms make it increasingly difficult to quit and manage withdrawal symptoms.

Early Signs To Watch Out For

I Don't Really Have A Problem, But I Can't Go Long Without Drinking
Your Health Can Still Benefit From Counseling. Click Here To Get Started
This website is owned and operated by BetterHelp, who receives all fees associated with the platform.

Substance use disorder can be hard to spot in yourself and others. Individuals with this disease tend to downplay and hide their symptoms. Here are some things you can keep an eye on:

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


The exact cause of SUD is inconclusive. However, many factors can play into the disease.

Environmental factors such as family and friends can play a role in drug use. Being exposed to parents who used during your childhood is one example. Genetic traits can also play a factor. Having family members with a history of substance use can cause you to be at a higher risk.

Other factors such as stress, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and depression can all play a role.


There are four main categories to diagnosing Substance Use Disorder. The diagnosis is based on a set of pathological behaviors regarding the use of the substance. Pathological here means behaviors that are difficult or impossible to control and happen regularly.

Impaired Control includes using the substance for long periods or at higher doses than intended. Impaired control also includes unsuccessfully reducing the use, intense cravings, and spending excessive time getting using and recovering from the substance.

Social Impairment affects the user’s relationships and obligations. This impairment can be in poor work/school performance, loss of personal relationships, and giving up meaningful social and recreational activities.

Risky Use pertains to the failure to reduce substance consumption despite the adverse consequences. Some examples include driving under the influence, smoking cigarettes with health complications, or engaging in risky sexual activities.

Tolerance And Withdrawal are often the classic indicators of advanced drug addiction. People experience an increased tolerance differently, but someone who is addicted will increase their use of the particular drug to get their desired results in general. Withdrawal is the body’s response to abruptly stopping drug consumption after developing a tolerance. Withdrawal symptoms vary from drug to drug.

How To Tell The Difference Between Substance Use Disorder and Partying


Partying or using substances on occasion does not always equate to substance use disorder. For example, having a drink with your friends on the weekends would not be considered a substance use disorder. The real problem lies in overindulgence and frequency.

When the use of a substance or drug starts to take hold of you mentally or physically, that indicates a problem. If you are experiencing urges, withdrawal symptoms, or increasing your use, it may be time to take control.

It’s also important to recognize the stages of drug use and addiction.

Stages Of Drug Use

There is a lifecycle throughout a drug user’s consumption. Some people won’t progress past the experimentation stage, but some will. While this doesn’t automatically categorize the use as substance use disorder, there are four stages of drug use leading to addiction, with experimentation being lowest on the totem pole.

Stage 1: Drug Experimentation

Drug experimentation doesn’t always lead to regular drug use and addiction, but it is considered the first stage.

In this stage, the person is experimenting with new types of drugs and substances. Social situations and environmental factors like being in college could cause experimentation.

The risk in experimentation is when the person is going through a challenging or vulnerable period of their life. This stress can lead to more frequent use.

Another risk factor is if someone receives positive results from consuming the drug or substance. These positive results could be in the form of stress relief or the acceptance of peers.

Stage 2: Social Or Regular Use

Stage 2 can be a challenging stage to determine. Some people can engage in occasional drug use and not become addicted or dependent. That being said, the risk of addiction increases during this stage.

Regular use of drugs increases the likelihood of risky behavior and activities. Risky behavior could include driving under the influence, emotional volatility, and high-risk sexual behavior.

During this stage, be on the lookout for physical and psychological symptoms of withdrawal. Keep an eye on your behavior, energy levels, and priorities. You might isolate yourself from friends and family or feel shame about your behavior.

Stage 3: Risky Use

Going between stages 2 and 3 can happen quite rapidly. You may not even notice it in yourself or the people you love. During stage 3, the person prioritizes the drug or substance above the other areas of their life. They can be unaware or unafraid of the potential consequences and downside of their use.

During this stage, they will start to become psychologically and physically dependent on the drug. They can experience fatigue, irritability, depression, and other symptoms if they go without the substance.

Due to the positive reinforcement the user felt during stages 1 and 2, they can easily find themselves in this stage. Repeated exposure and use of the substance activates the user’s reward system, causing them to crave the drug with more intensity. This reward and intensity cycle can propel the user into stage 4.

Stage 4: Chemical Dependencies And Drug Addiction

This phase is the final stage of drug addiction. Characteristics of this stage include continuous drug use despite the consequences, poor performance at work and home, adverse effects on physical and mental health, and even criminal activity.

People can experience a loss of personal relationships during this stage. Sometimes person experiencing addiction will reach a breaking point and be able to enter recovery. This breaking point can be in the form of arrest, near-death experience, loss of a loved one, etc.

During stage four, they must have a support system in the form of peers and family. The user has gotten to a point so far out of their grasp that it can be hard to admit and take responsibility.

Identifying Which Stage You Are In

It is crucial to have an honest look at your substance use and identify where you place in the stages. Taking responsibility sooner rather than later is always a better option than letting the problem get out of hand.

The fact that you’re reading this article right now shows strength. Being open and honest with yourself can be painful, but it is necessary. Ask yourself if your substance use is starting to take effect on your everyday life. Are you prioritizing drug consumption over your responsibilities? If you find yourself dipping into stage two or three, it may be time to take control.


I Don't Really Have A Problem, But I Can't Go Long Without Drinking
Your Health Can Still Benefit From Counseling. Click Here To Get Started


If you find your substance use influences your physical and mental health and affects your everyday life, it is time to own up to reality and get a consultation.

Don’t feel ashamed or embarrassed; anyone is susceptible to these issues. There are multiple potential solutions to pursue.

  • Behavioral Therapy is an evidence-based form of psychotherapy that gives you tools and strategies to deal with addiction and relapse head-on.
  • Self-Help Groups typically use a 12-step model. Some of these groups include Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous.
  • Speaking With A Mental Health Professional. In the same way, you’d check in with a doctor to fix a broken arm; there are times when you need to check in with mental health professionals to address issues like addiction.
  • Rehabilitation Centers are a form of outpatient care to rehabilitate patients to live and function on their own.

See below for an example of what speaking with a professional can do.

“As a young man who has been trying to do things the “strong man” way, I was reluctant even to consider help. Then my father began to wither in front of me, and I knew I was in trouble. There are some things that no one should attempt to do on their own. Ray, I hope you understand that you reaching out to me is something I can’t thank you enough for.”

Exploring Gender Differences In Substance Use

Although everyone can experience mental illness, it is frequently overlooked in men. One main reason for this is stigma. This includes public stigma (or the false belief that experiencing mental illness means having a weak character) and self-stigma (when men and boys internalize public stigma and might feel shame around their symptoms).

Why is this stigma so powerful in our society? You might intuitively know it has to do with traditional masculinity norms—the ways we expect men and boys to think and behave.

Traditionally, our society has tied men’s value to achievement (e.g., providing for their families) and stoicism, or the endurance of hardship without talking about feelings or expressing when they are struggling.

It is generally more acceptable for women to express feelings such as sadness, fear, vulnerability, and tenderness in our society. However, all humans (regardless of gender) experience these in life. Research shows that blocking or ignoring difficult feelings harms our physical health, yet we continue to tell young boys who cry to toughen up or “be a man.”

Mental health professionals often fail to diagnose mental illnesses like depression in men because men tend to mask depression with externalizing behaviors, meaning the display of behaviors that are noticeable from the outside—like aggression and substance use.

Men are two to three times more likely than women to misuse drugs to cope with mental illness.

Understanding why these gender differences in substance use exist is crucial to find solutions. Above all, we need to recognize that when men and boys consult professionals about their mental health, they’re showing immense strength.

Previous Article

Why Do We Need To Prioritize Teacher Mental Health?

Next Article

How Does Emotional Healing Differ From Physical Healing?
For Additional Help & Support With Your Concerns
Speak with a Licensed Therapist Today
The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.