Glossary of Substance Abuse and Addiction Terms & Phrases


The terminology surrounding substance use disorders has changed over the years as our understanding of addiction has evolved. It’s not always clear exactly what terms like “addiction” and “substance use disorder” mean. This has led to confusion among doctors, patients, family members, policymakers, and the general public.

While it was once common to use terms like “addict” and “junkie,” today we know that these kinds of stigmatizing or derogatory terms are unhelpful and can be quite harmful.

The words we choose matter. Even seemingly benign terms phrases “drug habit” can stigmatize people struggling with addiction by defining them by their behavior rather than addressing the underlying disorder (the term “drug habit” implies that not using drugs or alcohol is simply a matter of willpower).

One of our priorities at Retreat Premier Addiction Treatment Centers is helping to further our understanding of addiction, based on the latest science and evidence-based treatment approaches.

That mission has inspired us to compile the following list of terms and phrases related to alcohol and drug addiction. It’s not an all-inclusive list; rather, it provides definitions for some of the most commonly used terms.

Abstinence: Intentional and sustained period during which a person refrains from using drugs or alcohol.

Addiction: A chronic disorder characterized by compulsive drug-seeking behavior and use, despite negative consequences; addiction can cause long-lasting changes in the brain.

Addiction-Free: A less stigmatizing term than “clean” or “sober” to indicate a person is free from the compulsive behaviors of active addiction (see also “recovery” and “remission”).

Addiction Medicine Specialist: A physician, often one who is board-certified by the American Board of Addiction Medicine and who specializes in addiction diagnosis, treatment, and management. Addiction medicine specialists often coordinate a patient’s care with providers who offer addiction therapy/counseling and related services.

Addiction Psychiatrist: A physician who specializes in addiction psychiatry, a medical subspecialty of psychiatry focused on the evaluation, diagnosis, and treatment of people suffering from substance use disorders involving legal or illegal drugs.

Addiction Counselor: Addiction treatment providers who typically offer individual and group counseling. Depending on the state where they practice, they may be known as substance abuse counselors (SACs), certified alcohol and drug counselors (CADCs), or credentialed alcoholism and substance abuse counselors (CASACs).

Amphetamines: Synthetic, mood-altering stimulant drugs that act on the central nervous system (CNS). Amphetamines are used legally to treat adults with narcolepsy and children with attention deficit disorder (ADD); they are also used illegally as stimulants.

Analgesics: A broad term for drugs designed to reduce pain; analgesics include both over-the-counter medications (e.g., ibuprofen) as well as prescription medications, such as anti-anxiety medications, anticonvulsants, and opioids, known as narcotic analgesics.

Barbiturate: A central nervous system depressant used to treat seizure disorders and commonly used during surgery to relieve anxiety or tension. Barbiturates are also used to treat anxiety and sleep disorders (see “CNS Depressants”).

Benzodiazepine: A type of central nervous system depressant commonly prescribed to treat anxiety and panic disorders and acute stress reactions. Benzodiazepines (slang: “benzos”) are also sometimes used to promote sleep (see “CNS Depressants”).

Buprenorphine: A medication used to treat opioid addiction; it works by attaching to opioid receptors in the brain and blocking other opioids (such as heroin), so they become ineffective. Buprenorphine does not produce the high of other opioid drugs, yet it still helps manage withdrawal symptoms.

Cannabinoids: Chemicals found naturally in the brain and in marijuana (THC and CBD) that bind to cannabinoid receptors in the brain. Cannabinoids are involved in several mental and physical processes, including memory, thinking, concentration, movement, and reward.

Cannabis: Another name for the marijuana plant; the term is most often used to refer to the dried leaves, flowers, stems, and seeds from the Cannabis sativa or Cannabis indica plant.

Central Nervous System (CNS): The part of the nervous system that includes the brain and the spinal cord.

CNS Depressants: A class of drugs that slows brain activity and includes sedatives, tranquilizers, and hypnotics; CNS depressants are used to treat anxiety, panic, sleep disorders, and acute stress; diazepam (Valium®) and zolpidem (Ambien®) are both examples of CNS depressants.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): An evidence-based form of psychotherapy (talk therapy) that helps people become aware of and better manage unhelpful thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.

Co-Occurring Disorders: Term used to describe the presence of both a substance use disorder (SUD) and a mental health condition, such as depression, anxiety, or obsessive-compulsive disorder (see also “dual diagnosis” and “substance use disorder”).

Craving: A powerful, often overwhelming desire to use drugs.

Detoxification: Also simply called “detox,” this is the process of ridding the body of a toxic substance (e.g., a drug). Medically assisted detoxification is sometimes necessary to help manage uncomfortable or potentially dangerous withdrawal symptoms.

Doctor Shopping: When a patient requests drug prescriptions from multiple physicians without the physicians’ knowledge of this behavior.

Dopamine: A chemical that promotes feelings of well-being; dopamine is produced in several areas of the brain.

Downers: An alternate name for depressants, such as alcohol and barbiturates, which can dampen moods.

Drug Abuse: Refers to unsafe drug use that leads to negative physical, emotional, mental, or social consequences, including legal or financial troubles and interpersonal problems. The terms “drug misuse” or simply “drug use” are increasingly being used by medical professionals in place of “drug abuse.”

Drug Misuse: Use of a drug that is not specifically recommended or prescribed or that puts the person taking it or others in danger.

Dual Diagnosis: Term used to refer to situations in which a person has both a substance use disorder (SUD) and a mental health condition, such as depression or anxiety; the term “dual diagnosis” is falling out of favor and increasingly being replaced by “co-occurring disorders.”

Hallucinogen: Mind-altering drugs that distort awareness of surrounding objects and conditions and which can cause hallucinations.

Evidence-Based Treatment: Therapeutic approaches backed by objective, scientific evidence.

Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT): The use of medications to treat a substance use disorder. Medication-assisted treatment may be used as part of a comprehensive treatment program that also includes psychosocial therapies. It is often used for people with opioid addiction and dependence (e.g., naltrexone or methadone therapy).

Mental Health Disorder: A mental condition that seriously impairs a person’s psychological or behavioral function; examples include anxiety disorders, mood disorders, personality disorders, and substance use disorders (SUDs).

Narcotics: A drug that relieves pain and produces drowsiness/sleepiness. The word narcotic was formerly used to refer to any mind-altering drug; today narcotic is primarily used to refer to opioids (both naturally derived and synthetic forms).

Opiates: Natural substances derived from the poppy plant. Opiate drugs act on the central nervous system (CNS) to relieve pain; examples include opium, morphine, and codeine

Opioids: A synthetic class of drugs that bind to opioid receptors in the brain and act on the central nervous system (CNS) to relieve pain; examples include heroin (semi-synthetic) and prescription pain relievers oxycodone and hydrocodone (fully synthetic).

Opioid Receptors: Proteins on the surface of neurons or other cells in the brain. There are three receptor subtypes: mu, kappa, and delta. Opioid receptors are activated by substances produced by the body, such as endorphins, and opioid drugs, such as oxycodone or heroin.

Overdose: Occurs when a person uses enough of a drug to induce a life-threatening reaction or death.

Physical Dependence: A condition characterized by withdrawal when a person stops taking a drug, even some prescribed drugs. Physical dependence happens when the body adapts to a drug. Physical dependence should not be confused with addiction, which is the compulsive use of a drug despite negative consequences. Physical dependence and addiction often go hand in hand, but one can occur without the other (see also “addiction”).

Recovery: In addiction treatment, recovery refers to sustained actions that address the physical, emotional, social, and spiritual components of addiction. Actions in addiction recovery are aimed at addressing self-destructive thoughts and behaviors.

Rehabilitation: Also simply called “rehab,” this is the process of ceasing the use of substances (e.g., drugs or alcohol) for an extended period. Rehabilitation may involve individual, group, and family therapy; participation in12-step programs; and, in some cases, medication-assisted treatment. For those with co-occurring mental health conditions, rehabilitation may also involve medication management.

Remission: A period of time in which the signs and symptoms that characterize active addiction have subsided. Many people who have struggled with active addiction remain engaged in the process of recovery (by attending 12-step meetings, seeing a therapist, etc.) in order to remain in a state of remission.

Relapse: In the context of addiction, relapse refers to a recurrence of the signs and symptoms of active addiction (compulsive drug-seeking behavior, physical dependence, and other social, psychological, and behavioral problems). Relapse can be triggered by exposure to environmental cues of substance use, trauma, or emotional stressors.

Sober Living Facility: Also called a “sober living home” or “sober living house” (and formerly called a “halfway house”), a sober living facility is a residential facility used by people recovering from substance use disorders. Sober living homes serve as a transitional environment between alcohol or drug rehabilitation and life in the general community.

Substance Use Disorder (SUD): Refers to the disordered use of a substance or substances that causes physical impairment, health issues, and social problems. SUD is now recognized as a medical condition in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), and it can range from mild to severe.

Stimulant: Mind-altering drugs that act on the central nervous system (CNS), producing a feeling of alertness and wakefulness.

Tolerance: A condition in which the body becomes less responsive to a substance; people must increase their use of a substance for it to have the same effect.

Therapy: In addiction treatment, therapy is a general term used to refer to psychosocial therapy (e.g., individual, group, and family counseling).

Treatment: A general term that can include psychosocial therapy, medication-assisted treatment, and management of co-occurring mental health conditions. This may also include holistic therapies, such as yoga, meditation, and equine-assisted therapy.

Trigger: An environmental cue, emotional stressor, or anything else that results in psychological relapse followed by physical relapse.

Withdrawal: Symptoms that can occur after use of a drug is reduced or stopped. Withdrawal symptoms happen when a person has developed a tolerance to a substance, like alcohol or heroin. Symptoms can be physical or psychological in nature, or both. Managing withdrawal symptoms is critical during drug treatment, as these symptoms can cause severe discomfort or pain and an overwhelming urge to use the substance.

Alcohol withdrawal symptoms, for example, can include nausea, vomiting, anxiety, shakiness, and insomnia; detoxing from alcohol can be difficult and even dangerous—therefore, it’s best to seek out a reputable alcohol rehab facility that provides medically supervised detoxification.

12-Step: Support groups (pioneered by Alcoholics Anonymous) that embrace a set of guiding principles to help participants recover from substance use disorders and other compulsive behaviors (e.g., gambling). 12-step groups provide ongoing social, emotional, and informational support to those struggling with or who have struggled with addiction.


World-Class Drug Addiction Help at Retreat Premier Addiction Treatment Centers


Retreat Premier Addiction Treatment Centers provides addiction treatment services tailored to the specific needs of each patient. We take a comprehensive, holistic approach to care, considering the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of our patients. Our two care facilities are located in Palm Beach, FL and Lancaster County, PA—both ideal settings for healing. Our services include:

Please call us today at 800-557-0566 to learn more about our programs and state-of-the-art addiction recovery center.


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