Substance Abuse

Dependence vs. Addiction: What’s the Difference?

Woman suffering from addiction.

Due to the widespread use and general social acceptance of drugs and alcohol, many people are confused regarding dependence vs. addiction: what’s the difference? Unfortunately, individuals who are not familiar with the complexities of substance use will typically turn to ‘addiction’ as a catch-all term. The lack of accurate terminology can lead to confusion, misunderstandings, and even stigma regarding rehabilitation and treatment. To help set the record straight, we will discuss dependence and addiction.

What is dependence?

Dependence on drugs and alcohol usually exhibits in two prominent ways: The gradual buildup of tolerance and the withdrawal symptoms. Individuals may have a dependence on a substance without necessarily developing an addiction. However, in most cases, addiction will quickly follow if the initial dependence isn’t addressed.

Tolerance can easily be explained by substances like alcohol. For example, when a person frequently drinks excessive amounts of alcohol, over time, they will require larger quantities to achieve the same level of inebriation. Of course, that kind of consumption can lead to many issues, and we recommend seeking alcohol treatment to prevent severe health complications.

Withdrawal symptoms occur when a person attempts to reduce their use or stop using entirely. The exact symptoms will depend on the substance in question, but they are always uncomfortable and sometimes even painful. If individuals are using hard drugs, withdrawal symptoms can be almost impossible to overcome without professional help. Therefore, it would be best to contact a professional treatment center rather than trying to overcome the withdrawal symptoms alone.

Casual drinking makes telling the difference between dependence vs. addiction difficult.
Even casual drinking can lead to dependence on alcohol.

There are two primary forms of dependence: physical and mental.

Physical dependence is typically characterized by cravings and irritability when a substance isn’t used. Medical professionals always recommend that it’s better to slowly reduce the usage over time rather than to stop abruptly. A sudden stop in drug or alcohol use can lead to severe withdrawal symptoms. This can be particularly problematic when individuals use prescription medication, and people frequently end up addicted to prescription drugs.

Prescription drug addiction can quickly develop from prolonged use or simply misunderstanding how to use prescription medication. Individuals who take prescription medication to combat a chronic issue can create a physical tolerance. This tolerance can trick them into using more of the drug to avoid chronic pain or other problems. The experts from run a database of different providers and services and recommend using medical alert devices. Such devices can remind you to take your prescription meds only at times recommended by your physician. However, it would be best to consult with your doctor regarding prescription drug use and how to taper off your recommended dosage slowly.

Mental dependence can exhibit itself as a desire to use that is conditioned. The events and feelings that may cause a desire to use are often called triggers. These triggers lead to biochemical changes in an individual’s brain chemistry. The results of these triggers can present themselves as a strong desire to use; however, they can also cause irritability, nervousness, anxiety, and depression.

Shadow of a hand reaching out for help.
Addiction is often accompanied by depression and other co-existing mental disorders.

What is addiction?

Addiction is formally called substance use disorder and is classified as a diagnosable medical condition. The American Society of Addiction Medicine defines addiction as a chronic mental illness. This means that addiction cannot be healed; however, its symptoms can be treated and mitigated. Addiction often presents itself as the compulsive use of drugs, regardless of the harmful consequences to a person’s physical and mental health. Persons suffering from long-term drug or alcohol abuse experience changes to their brain chemistry and a vast array of physical symptoms.

If left untreated, addiction will usually get worse over time. As individuals build up a tolerance, they will undoubtedly use more to achieve the same high. This behavior can cause organ damage, overdose, and in extreme cases, even death. Most individuals suffering from addiction believe they can stop their substance abuse if they want to. Unfortunately, overcoming addiction can be highly challenging and is usually impossible without professional help.

Causes for addiction

Addiction frequently develops from dependence on drugs or alcohol. A combination of factors can lead to addiction, such as specific brain chemistry, a genetic predisposition, and various societal factors. Of course, certain hard drugs are incredibly addictive and can cause addiction to form almost immediately. If you or a loved one is struggling with substance use disorder for hard drugs, you should seek drug addiction treatment at a professional recovery center.

Man suffering from addiction with a mental dependence.
Even some professionals have trouble telling the difference between dependence vs. addiction.

Dependence vs. addiction

When an individual has both the physical and mental symptoms of dependence, they usually suffer from addiction. Although dependence isn’t directly synonymous with addiction, individuals suffering from substance use disorder are usually experiencing dependence as well. One of the best ways to differentiate dependence vs. addiction is that individuals with addiction have both physical and mental dependence, and they exhibit compulsive and uncontrollable behavior. Individuals with addiction will go to great lengths to obtain and use the substance they are addicted to. On the other hand, dependence may be present without addiction, but if left unchecked, substance dependency can lead to addiction.

Substance abuse and substance dependence are often equated, even among medical professionals. The best way to tell them apart is by looking at the frequency and extent of the substance use. It’s hard to give a universal answer since the extent of use that characterizes addiction will depend on the substance in question.

Another point of confusion can stem from the different vocabulary used by various institutions and agencies. In recent years there have been significant efforts to standardize the terminology used for substance use and the various disorders accompanying it.

In conclusion

If we try to understand dependence vs. addiction, we can better understand the reasons and causes for substance use and the best ways to help individuals suffering from addiction. It is also essential for individuals in recovery to educate themselves on the nature of addiction. Learning about triggers and physical dependence can help individuals successfully achieve recovery and prevent relapse. If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use, reach out for help now.