Is There a Difference Between Physical Dependence & Addiction?

Millions of people in the United States live with a substance use disorder that requires professional treatment, but few get the help they need. A substance use disorder is characterized by substance use that interferes with a person’s ability to live a healthy, fulfilling life and function normally in their daily life. Substance abuse and addiction cause severe and long-term health complications and prevent people from living the healthy, fulfilling lifestyle they choose.

Not all substance abuse leads to addiction. There is a wide range of problematic substance use. Understanding the difference between dependence and addiction, as well as other terminology related to substance abuse, can help you get the treatment you need and communicate effectively with your treatment team.

If someone you care about lives with substance abuse or you have concerns about your own substance use, knowing the signs and what steps to take next can be the difference between recovery and a lifelong struggle with addiction.

What is Physical Dependence?

After a prolonged period of heavy or frequent substance use, a person’s body begins to adapt to the presence of the substance. They may require more of the substance to get the desired effects, which is known as developing tolerance.

People who develop tolerance may use more drugs and alcohol than they intend to and may engage in secretive or risky behavior related to their substance use. Because their body has become dependent on drugs or alcohol, they will likely experience withdrawal symptoms if they stop using them.

Withdrawal symptoms can vary depending on the type of drug the person uses, the amount and frequency of their substance use, and other physical and behavioral factors. But withdrawal is often so uncomfortable that many have a relapse–meaning they use drugs or alcohol after a period of abstinence–before experiencing a complete detox.

Because withdrawal can be so challenging, substance abuse experts and medical professionals often advise their patients to seek treatment in a medically-supported detox program. In this type of drug and alcohol detox program, medical and support professionals use medications, emotional support, and holistic therapies to keep people comfortable during withdrawal. This increases the likelihood of detox success and provides a foundation for lifelong recovery.

Physical dependence is one of the most significant signs that someone is developing an addiction that requires treatment.

What is Addiction?

Addiction is different from physical dependence in several critical ways. Addiction is a serious medical condition defined as a complete loss of control regarding substance use. Addiction experts talk about the “four C’s of addiction” to describe the condition. They are:

The Four C's of Addiction

  • Control: People with addiction lack control over their substance use. They are unable to set limits on their substance use or choose to stop using when they want to.
  • Consequences: Even when faced with severe, life-threatening consequences of their substance use, people with addiction cannot stop using.
  • Craving: People with addiction often struggle with intense cravings when they can’t use drugs or alcohol. Cravings can last for days, weeks, months, or longer after a person stops using a substance.
  • Compulsion: People may feel compelled to use drugs or alcohol. They may experience anxiety, mood swings, or depression if they stop using substances.

Addiction narrows a person’s focus. They may stop caring for themself, neglect their relationships and responsibilities, and spend a great deal of time thinking about, using, and recovering from using substances. Prolonged, heavy substance abuse causes changes to the way a person’s body and brain work, making it nearly impossible to stop using drugs and alcohol without professional assistance.

Physical Dependence vs Addiction: When to Get Help

Physical Dependence vs. Addiction

Addiction is a serious, lifelong condition that requires comprehensive treatment. But what are the differences between treatment for physical dependence vs addiction, and when should you seek help?

People may begin to abuse drugs and alcohol for various reasons. Peer pressure and curiosity can drive people to start using drugs recreationally, or people may become dependent on addictive prescription medications. Or, people may use drugs and alcohol to temporarily relieve physical or emotional pain.

It’s important to note that physical dependence can develop without an addiction. For example, people who take their antidepressants as prescribed often experience withdrawal symptoms if they skip a dose or stop taking their medication. However, they are not engaging in addictive behaviors, and are not struggling with addiction.

On the other hand, most people who are addicted to drugs or alcohol have developed a physical dependence. The difference is that on top of the physical dependence, they are also engaging in dangerous, compulsive, and often ritualistic substance abuse.

Whatever the reason someone abuses substances, it’s crucial to seek treatment as soon as you recognize the signs of a problematic relationship with drugs or alcohol. Substance abuse treatment programs use evidence-based and holistic therapies to address the physical, emotional, and behavioral aspects of substance abuse and give people the skills they need to avoid relapse for life.

Some signs that it’s time to get help for an addiction include:

  • Using more drugs in one setting than you planned on more than one occasion
  • Spending excessive amounts of time and money on the substance(s) you are addicted to
  • Lying to loved ones about your situation
  • Continuing to use drugs or alcohol even when they are causing significant problems in your life
  • Feeling as though you cannot function or live without your drug of choice

Clinical teams at drug and alcohol rehab centers adapt individual treatment plans to meet the unique goals and needs of each patient. Treatment plans generally include:

  • Individual therapy
  • Medications
  • Mental health and medical treatment
  • Group counseling
  • Education
  • Holistic therapies like massage, yoga, mindfulness, and nutrition counseling
  • Family therapy
  • Aftercare planning

The length of time people spend in substance abuse treatment depends on the severity of their addiction, their mental health and medical needs, and other personal factors.

Find Help Now

If you or a loved one lives with substance abuse, you must seek treatment as soon as possible to avoid addiction’s serious, long-term consequences. Located in Vista, California Arise Treatment Center is one of the country’s leading drug and alcohol addiction treatment and behavioral health providers. With a team of passionate professionals who are dedicated to helping those struggling with substance abuse, Arise Treatment Center’s main goal is to provide exceptional long-term wellness to our clients as well as their families.

Reach out to the Arise Treatment Center specialists today to learn more about our supportive, holistic treatment programs.


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