The distinction between drug addiction and drug dependence can be a complicated one, in part because the terms are sometimes used interchangeably and in inconsistent ways, and in part because the two conditions can often but will not always overlap. 

First off, “addiction” is not technically a medical term and is often used colloquially to describe both mild forms of physical or psychological dependence and to describe full blown substance abuse disorder, a psychological condition that has a discrete definition in the DSM-IV and that can be classified as mild or severe. 

Dependence, on the other hand, is defined by the National Institute on Drug Abuse as “a state in which an organism functions normally only in the presence of a drug.” This is where a further distinction can perhaps be made between “psychological dependence” and “physical dependence.” 

For instance, someone may have a “psychological dependence” on a nightly glass or two of wine or hit or two or marijuana but would not experience any serious physical withdrawal symptoms if they attempted to break that habit, though it may still be somewhat mentally difficult for them depending on the strength of their attachment to it, hence interfering with their “normal” functioning. 

However, someone with a physical dependence will experience such a physical reaction, which could be as mild as fatigue or a headache or could be as severe as a potentially fatal medical condition

Which doesn’t mean that everyone who has a physical dependence has a psychological addiction. For instance, someone who is taking, for example, a moderate dose of opiate medication to manage chronic pain, may feel “dependent” on the medication in order to live a normal life and may experience relatively severe withdrawal symptoms if they suddenly stop their use, but they may not be “addicted” the the drug if they do not compulsively seek it out for its psychological effects. 

However, physical dependence can indeed be a warning sign that drug abuse is progressing towards addiction—or, in the case of some drugs and some drug abusers, a sign that an addiction that was formerly a more psychological dependence is becoming even more dangerously deeply rooted.

Similarly, while “addiction” is by definition causing the user negative consequences, dependence may not always be a bad thing: for instance, in the case of someone whose antidepressants allow them to function normally, or who finds that a few daily cups of coffee makes them more productive. 

This is because while such a person would probably experience mild withdrawal symptoms if they ceased their use, they would still be unlikely to say, steal a cup of coffee if they are unable to find one, as opposed to someone who has a deeply rooted addiction to a stronger drug.

It’s also worth noting that some drugs that are highly psychologically addictive come with only mild physical withdrawal symptoms. For instance, users of drugs like stimulants will experience a depressive crash once they stop using, it will only take a few days of exhaustion until they should feel more or less normal, as opposed to the protracted or physically dangerous withdrawal symptoms that are more common with other drugs. 

The distinction between physical and psychological dependence also explains why it is possible to have a purely psychological addiction, such as a gambling addiction or internet addiction, that nonetheless requires intensive psychological treatment to overcome. 

But neither physical nor psychological dependence, or even an addiction that involves both, is impossible to overcome. Though addiction to opiate drugs usually involves  excruciating physical dependence as well as psychological attachment, options like medication-assisted-treatment can still lessen the hold of the former and make mental and emotional recovery more possible. 

Medically supervised detox processes for other drugs that can result in physically dangerous withdrawal symptoms, like alcohol or benzodiazepines, can still provide those struggling with addictions with a safe road back to sobriety. 

To learn more about withdrawal, addiction, dependence, and how our team of experts can help secure the appropriate addiction treatment for you or someone you love, feel free to call us anytime at (833) 489-5577 or to contact us online here.

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