Slipping into the Tangled Web: The Early Warning Signs of Substance Use Disorder

The path starts wide and clear, but as you venture deeper, branches reach out, catching on your clothes. Thorny bushes snag your ankles, and the sunlight struggles to penetrate the thickening canopy. Before you know it, you’re lost in a tangled web of undergrowth, unsure of how you got there and how to get out.

This is a metaphor for how Substance Use Disorder (SUD) often develops. It starts innocently, a social drink here, a pain reliever there. But over time, the lines blur, and what once seemed harmless becomes a struggle to control.

This blog aims to shed light on the early warning signs of SUD, helping you identify the subtle changes before the web becomes too difficult to escape.

What is Substance Use Disorder (SUD)?

SUD is a complex condition in which there is uncontrolled use of a substance despite harmful consequences. People with SUD have an intense focus on using a certain substance(s) to the point where it negatively affects their health, relationships, work, or school.

Think of it like this: Imagine having a favorite candy bar. You might enjoy it occasionally, but you wouldn’t eat it all the time, especially if it made you feel sick or caused problems at school. However, with SUD, the urge to use the substance becomes so strong that it overrides common sense and the potential for negative consequences.

Many different substances can lead to SUD, including:

  • Alcohol
  • Illegal drugs (marijuana, cocaine, heroin, etc.)
  • Prescription drugs (pain relievers, tranquilizers, etc.)
  • Over-the-counter medications (cough syrup, sleep aids, etc.)

Early Warning Signs of Slipping into the Tangled Web

Substance Use Disorder often develops gradually. Here are some early warning signs to watch out for:

Increased Use: 

This is the most obvious sign. If someone starts using a substance more often than usual, it could be a red flag. For example, a teenager who used to only drink at parties might now be drinking on weekends and even weekdays.

Changes in Behavior: 

People with Substance Use Disorder may start neglecting their responsibilities, showing changes in mood or personality, becoming secretive about their activities, or isolating themselves from friends and family.


The body can build up a tolerance to a substance over time, meaning that someone needs to use more and more of it to get the same effect. This can lead to increased use and potentially riskier behavior.

Withdrawal Symptoms: 

When someone with SUD tries to stop using the substance, they may experience withdrawal symptoms like anxiety, sweating, tremors, or nausea. This can be a powerful motivator to continue using, even if they know it’s causing problems.

Continued Use Despite Negative Consequences: 

This is a hallmark sign of SUD. Even if someone experiences negative consequences, like legal trouble, relationship problems, or health issues, they may continue to use the substance.

Here are some resources with more detailed information on the signs and symptoms of SUD:

Substance Use Disorder

Examples of How the Early Signs Can Play Out

Let’s look at some real-life scenarios to illustrate how these early warning signs might appear:

Scenario 1: The Weekend Partyer

Increased Use: 

Sarah, a 16-year-old, used to enjoy occasional drinks at parties with friends. It was a social activity, not a necessity. However, lately, things have changed. Parties are no longer just weekend events; they become a more frequent escape. She might start looking forward to weekends solely for the opportunity to drink.

Changes in Behavior: 

Her grades start to slip as hangovers and the desire to party interfere with schoolwork. She loses interest in hobbies she once enjoyed, preferring to spend time with friends who also drink. Her parents notice a shift in her mood, with irritability and secretive behavior becoming more common.


What used to be one or two drinks at a party might not be enough anymore. Sarah might feel the need to drink more to achieve the same level of intoxication, a sign of developing tolerance. This can lead to her consuming dangerous amounts of alcohol in a short period.

Withdrawal Symptoms: 

Skipping a party or trying to cut back on drinking might result in withdrawal symptoms like headaches, nausea, and anxiety. This physical discomfort can be a powerful motivator to resume drinking, even if she knows it’s causing problems.

Continued Use Despite Negative Consequences: 

Despite arguments with her parents, failing grades, and a general decline in well-being, Sarah continues to prioritize drinking over other aspects of her life. This is a crucial sign of potential Substance Use Disorder.

Scenario 2: The Stressed-Out Student

Increased Use: 

David, a college student, faces immense pressure due to exams. He started using a prescription medication meant for occasional anxiety relief to cope with the constant stress. Initially, he takes the recommended dosage, but as the pressure mounts, he convinces himself he needs more to feel “normal.” He might start taking double or even triple the prescribed amount.

Changes in Behavior: 

David becomes withdrawn and isolates himself from his friends, neglecting the social activities he used to enjoy. He might skip classes or struggle to focus due to the medication’s side effects like drowsiness or difficulty concentrating. His academic performance suffers, and he might experience increased anxiety because of the mounting pressure and the potential of getting caught misusing his medication.


As David’s body adjusts to the medication, its effectiveness diminishes. He needs higher doses to achieve the same level of anxiety relief, putting him at risk of overdose or dependence.

Withdrawal Symptoms: 

When David tries to stop taking the medication or reduce the dosage, he might experience withdrawal symptoms like rebound anxiety, insomnia, and tremors. This discomfort can be a powerful incentive to resume taking the medication, even if it’s no longer helping him manage stress effectively.

Continued Use Despite Negative Consequences: 

David’s grades plummet, his relationships suffer, and his overall health deteriorates due to the medication’s side effects. Yet, the fear of withdrawal and the pressure to perform well academically keep him using the medication despite the negative consequences.

Scenario 3: The Injured Athlete

Increased Use:

Mark, a young athlete, receives pain medication after a sports injury. Initially, he takes the medication as prescribed to manage the pain effectively. However, as the pain starts to subside, he continues taking the medication, justifying it by the fear of the pain returning. He might even convince himself he needs it to perform at his best, even though the injury is healing.


Over time, Mark’s body builds tolerance to the medication, requiring him to take more pills to achieve the same level of pain relief. This can lead to him taking more than the prescribed dosage, increasing the risk of overdose and addiction.

Changes in Behavior: 

Mark becomes secretive about his medication use, fearing judgment from coaches or teammates. He might start avoiding social activities or physical therapy sessions due to the fear of running out of pills or experiencing withdrawal symptoms. His focus shifts from recovery and rehabilitation to obtaining and using the medication.

Withdrawal Symptoms: 

If Mark tries to stop taking the medication or reduce the dosage, he might experience withdrawal symptoms like muscle aches, nausea, and difficulty sleeping. These physical discomforts can be a significant obstacle in his journey towards recovery.

Continued Use Despite Negative Consequences:

Mark’s athletic performance might decline due to the medication’s side effects. He might experience social isolation and strained relationships because of his secretive behavior. Despite the negative consequences, the fear of withdrawal and the desire to manage pain keep him hooked on the medication.

These scenarios highlight how seemingly normal situations can become stepping stones into the tangled web of SUD. Early intervention is crucial to prevent the problem from escalating. By recognizing these warning signs and seeking help, individuals struggling with SUD can break free

It’s Not Too Late to Break Free

If you recognize some of these early warning signs in yourself or someone you care about, it’s important to remember that there is hope. SUD is a treatable condition, and there are many resources available to help people overcome it.

Here are some steps you can take:

Talk to Someone You Trust: 

This could be a friend, family member, therapist, doctor, or counselor. Talking about your concerns can be the first step towards getting help.

Seek Professional Help: 

A doctor or therapist can assess the situation and recommend the best course of treatment. This may include individual or group therapy, medication-assisted treatment (MAT), or a combination of approaches.

Join a Support Group: 

Connecting with others who are facing similar challenges can be incredibly helpful. Support groups provide a safe space to share experiences, learn from others, and find encouragement.

Here are some resources that can help you find treatment and support:

Substance Use Disorder may feel like a tangled web, but you don’t have to struggle alone. With awareness, early intervention, and the right support system, it’s possible to break free and build a healthier future.

Additional Tips:

  • Educate Yourself: Learning more about Substance Use Disorder and its effects can empower you to make informed decisions.
  • Focus on Healthy Habits: Develop healthy coping mechanisms to manage stress and difficult emotions, such as exercise, spending time in nature, or practicing relaxation techniques.
  • Celebrate Milestones: Recovery is a journey, not a destination. Recognize and celebrate your progress, no matter how small.

By taking action and reaching out for help, you can reclaim your life from the tangled web of Substance Use Disorder.

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