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Umbrella Project

Module 2: Understanding Substance Abuse

This module will help you understand substance use. It will look at the factors that influence substance use and what can cause this use to become problematic.


  • Our behaviour is influenced by a variety of factors. Our culture, our human needs, and the way our brains work all influence our behaviour, including our substance use.
  • Substance use seems to help until it becomes harmful.Alcohol and other drugs seem to address issues such as anxiety or loneliness at first, which encourages people to keep using, even when it starts causing problem.
  • Substance use makes problems worse.If someone has been using to address problems, a substance use disorder will make those problems worse.
  • Not everyone who uses ends up having a problem.There are different stages of substance use, from no use to substance use disorder.
  • Understanding the risk factors can help.Risk factors make some people more likely to develop a substance use disorder. Knowing the risk factors can help people navigate those factors, decrease the stigma, and encourage treatment.

Understanding Substance Use


How we understand addiction and substance use directly affects what kind of support we provide for people. In this module we're going to examine human nature: the social, psychological, and biological factors that affect use, the different stages of use, and the risk factors that can take social use into problematic substance use.

Introduction to Module 2: Understanding Substance Use video transcript

Human Behaviour

Watch the video or read the information below to learn about human behaviour and how it influences substance use.

Human Behaviour video transcript

Human behavior doesn't occur in a vacuum. There are a variety of influences, from genetics to social factors, that shape our behaviors. Some groups of influences are listed here:

  • Basic Needs, e.g. affection, food, shelter
  • Biology/Genetics, e.g. disabilities, health, hormones
  • Community/Environment, e.g. neighbourhood, policies/laws
  • Family, e.g. culture, family support, values
  • Media, e.g. advertisements, music, video games
  • Personal Goals, e.g. grades, image, morals
  • Resources, e.g. money, time, transportation
  • Social, e.g. friends, role models, teams/clubs

We live in a culture that sends very mixed messages on substance use. On one hand we embrace and endorse substance use, especially alcohol and marijuana. We celebrate it. We relax with a beer or a bottle of wine. We listen to music about drinking at a club or at a party. We watch movies about getting high. We see alcohol and other drugs as the as the solution to heartbreak and stress. We connect with others by using them.

On the other hand, we tell children and youth ‘drugs are bad, just say no.’ We tend to judge people who struggle to control their use or those who use certain substances or use in certain ways.

Social/Psychological Reasons

There are social and psychological factors that influence our use of substances. Watch the video or read the information below to learn more about these factors. You can also download the Social, Psychological and Biological Reasons for Substance Use video transcript.

Social Psychological Reasons for Substance Abuse Video Transcript

Social/Psychological Reasons for Substance Abuse

When youth were asked why they use marijuana, their answers included:

  • excitement
  • help connecting with others and having a sense of belonging
  • coping with stress
  • managing boredom

It sounds like marijuana is working to meet their human needs.

As human beings, if something works for us, we tend to keep doing it. Ongoing use can build tolerance and create habits. This can lead to an increase in ongoing use that may lead to a substance use disorder. As we know, alcohol and other drugs can seem to work when it comes to meeting our human needs. Knowing this, it makes more sense why someone would continue using even when it causes problems.

Eventually the use stops meeting those human needs and if the person develops a substance disorder, the substance use will make the issues worse. If someone has used to connect with others, they'll become isolated. If someone has used to manage their anxiety, eventually their anxiety will increase.

When something stops working, humans will try doing more of it, or doing it in different ways, to see if that will make it work again. It can be difficult to recognize alcohol or a drug as a problem when someone has experienced this substance working for them for a long time. Giving up the only thing that seemed to work would be hard.

Biological Reasons

Watch the video or read the information below to learn more about how the way our brain works influences our use of substances.

The impact of the brain on substance use disorders video transcript

Impact of the Brain on Substance Use Disorders

The brain is wired to ensure that we will repeat life-sustaining activities. It does this by releasing dopamine—the ‘hey that's fantastic we should do this again’ neurotransmitter.

Back in the primitive days, our brains would have been bursting with dopamine when we found and ate food, found shelter, had sex, and ran away from the sabre-toothed tiger— things that helped us survive. In the present day, when activated at normal levels, this system rewards our natural behaviors. Over-stimulating this system, however, produces euphoric effects.

Alcohol and other drugs can release 2-10 times the amount of dopamine that natural rewards such as eating and sex do. This can happen almost immediately and last longer than any of the natural rewards we may receive. Our brains make us feel great after we have a delicious meal, whereas if we were to smoke marijuana, our brains would make us feel FANTASTIC, and that feeling would last a lot longer than our post meal bliss. We can see how our own brain can reinforce alcohol and other drug use.

For more detailed information on the brain read the article Drugs, Brains, and Behavior: The Science of Addiction - open sin a new window

Stages of Use

Not everyone who uses alcohol or a drug ends up having a problem. There are different stages of substance use, and not everybody who uses alcohol or a drug goes through all the stages. Many people can use socially and have it cause them very little problems. Click on each stage to learn more about substance use at this stage.

No Use

We need to recognize that there are a lot of people who don’t use alcohol and other drugs for lots of different reasons. When we don't recognize that some people don't use, we make them invisible. People who don't use have either made the decision not to try substances, tried them didn't like them, or suffered from an addiction and are now abstinent.


In this stage, you learn the effects of the substance. Experimentation is often unplanned. Many people, particularly in their teens, go through the experimentation stage, where they try a substance for the sake of trying it, purely out of curiosity.

A lot of adults have told them not to drink or do drugs. Yet, it is likely they know someone who has used alcohol or another drug and shared that they liked it and it was fun, which influences their decision to try it.

Experimentation is the only stage that you can't stay in; once you've experimented, you either go back to no use or you make the decision to go on to occasional or social use.


People in this stage like using the substance. When a person is using occasionally, there's not a lot of time, money, or energy spent on getting the substance, using it, or recovering from it. If the alcohol or other drug is around them, they will use it, but they won’t seek it out. Social users tend to spend more money, time, and energy on getting their alcohol or other drug, using it, or recovering from it.

In these stages, if they were to use beyond their limits or experience a negative consequence they would easily be able to make changes to their use to prevent that from happening again.


People in this stage need to use the substance. Using alcohol or another drug has become a habit. They devote more time and money into getting it, using it, recovering from it. Use occurs in multiple situations, not just socially, and negative consequences are starting to occur on a more regular basis. They will also tend to lose interest in non-using activities and non-using people.

Substance Use Disorder/Addiction

People in this stage crave the substance. At this stage, the brain has determined that use is needed for survival. This is the disorder. At this stage, people use despite the negative consequences. They do not have control over their use and they are more likely to be using in higher risk ways. They're using to feel normal, and to stop withdrawals. Use is the number one priority.

Risk Factors

There are risk factors that contribute to substance use disorders. Watch the video or read the information below to learn more about these factors.

Risk Factors Video Transcript

When we educate people about what the risk factors increase the likelihood of developing a substance use disorder,, we can empower them to make decisions that help them navigate through those factors.

Talking about the risk factors could help prevent substance use disorders and increase the chances that someone will seek treatment if a substance use disorder occurs.

Read more about the risk factors for substance use disorder below.

Families appear to have significant influence when it comes to developing a substance use disorder. That's because there are three main factors that increase the risk:

  • hereditary means
  • the natural social learning that occurs in all families
  • the three rules that are learned in a high-stress home


Research points to a hereditary factor in substance use. While no alcoholic gene has been discovered, often, people who are struggling with substance use disorders or alcohol use disorders know of several blood relatives who also struggle with addiction.

It should be noted that Canada's Aboriginal population has no recorded history of addiction until after colonisation. At this point, they lost their land, their culture, and their children, and alcohol was introduced as trade and for celebration. If you remember the human needs activities, you can understand why these events would have impacted their substance use.

Social Learning

When we are children, we believe that all families behave the way our family does. Our families are the primary source of learning, so if we grow up in a family where there are substance use issues or other unhealthy coping skills we are more likely to adopt those same skills.

Three rules

There are three common rules that are learned in highly stressed, addicted, severely mentally ill, or abusive families:

  • Rule #1: Don't Talk. This sounds like “what happens in this house stays in this house.” No one talks about problems, even within the family. There are a lot of lies, excuses, and minimizing behaviors that occur.
  • Rule # 2: Don't Trust. Children learn that they cannot trust the highly stressed family members to fulfill their family roles or promises. They also learn that they can't trust their own feelings. If they sense tension, but nobody is talking about the issue, the child learns, “I must be feeling wrong, I must be too sensitive.” Then they learn not to trust their feelings.
  • Rule #3: Don't Feel. Human beings are designed to feel emotions. When we can't talk about negative emotions or trust those feelings to be true, then we start finding ways to make those feelings go away. As we saw earlier with the human needs exercise, alcohol and other drugs work to temporarily change feelings.

Growing up with these rules would make people vulnerable to ongoing substance use.

Alcohol and other drugs are very effective at relaxing the body and changing thoughts, moods, and feelings. For this reason, people who have mental health issues and learning disabilities are at a higher risk for repeatedly using substances, which increases the risk of developing a substance use disorder.

People suffering from depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, or schizophrenia may turn to use substances that increase dopamine, relax the body, and change thoughts.

A 13-year-old has solved 13 years of problems, has 13 years of coping skills, and has 13 years of developing a social network. That 13-year-old has a limited set of skills—a small toolbox.

An adult who is three times older than that 13-year-old has a toolbox that is three times the size. They have that many more coping skills, that much more of a social network, that much more knowledge that they can get through difficult times.

If that 13-year-old has alcohol, this changes the way their body and brain work. If they've struggled to meet their human needs, alcohol may seem like the answer to all their problems. Because using seems to be effective, they will continue to use. If alcohol works, then there's no reason to find other ways to make friends, tolerate frustration, or manage boredom. This explains why it takes youth less time to develop substance use disorders than it would an adult.

There are other risk factors for substance use disorders, which includes the following:

  • attachment issues
  • trauma
  • environment
  • the accessibility of alcohol and other drugs