Content reviewed by Christian Losch, LCSW, LCADC, CEO of Pinelands

One of the many misconceptions about substance use and addiction is that addiction equates to dependence or vice versa. It is essential to understand that, although sometimes these terms are used interchangeably, they are not the same.

The difference between addiction and dependence can be challenging to understand, mainly because they can and do occur together. Let’s look at what makes addiction and dependence distinct conditions while acknowledging their overlap.

Addiction is characterized by drug-seeking behavior.

Drug addiction is a chronic condition that motivates drug-seeking behavior. Addiction is characterized by the continuing urge to use substances despite the harmful consequences of substance use.

Addiction develops from a combination of risk factors, with the most significant risk being experimenting or using chemical substances, even just once. Rarely do people use drugs and alcohol with the conscious belief that there is a possibility of becoming addicted to substances. Most people neglect to realize that they are paving their path for addiction when they believe they can control their substance use.

Addiction interferes with all areas of life, causing a person to experience difficulties in their career, education, relationships, or general well-being. It is usual for people to experience increased substance tolerance when they develop an addiction and painful withdrawal symptoms when attempting to stop. Still, the main feature of addiction is chronic substance use.

Dependence is characterized by relying on a substance to feel “normal.”

It is not uncommon for people developing an addiction to experience chemical dependence. Substance dependence is a term used to describe a physical or psychological need for substance use for the mind or body to function as its new version of normal.

There are two main types of dependence, physical and mental.

1. Physical dependence – occurs when a person uses substances so regularly that the body adapts to the drug. In other words, signs of physical dependency are recognized when a person starts to rely on a substance for their own physical or mental well-being. This type of dependence is experienced through a combination of factors, including increased substance tolerance and increased severity of withdrawal symptoms when the drug is not being used.

A person with physical dependence on a drug is likely to have a high tolerance and will continuously require higher dosages to feel the desired effects. This phenomenon occurs when the body adapts to drug consumption, causing a person to identify with this feeling of “normal” only when using substances. When someone with a physical dependence weans themself off or quits substance use, they will experience harmful withdrawal symptoms and cravings as the body is just trying to return to its substance-free state.

2. Mental Dependence – also considered psychological dependence. Psychological dependence occurs from the temporary, perceived sensations of pleasure, reward, and contentment followed by substance use. Psychological dependence is recognized through triggers, such as an emotional response to an event or situation associated with substance use.

Addiction and substance dependence are different conditions that share several similarities.

There are several ways to address the link between addiction and dependence. While there are cases where addiction or dependence—either physical or psychological—can be experienced separately, they are usually experienced together. It may help to understand that dependence can be a consequence of drug use that may develop into addiction, but dependence is not the cause or result of addiction.

It is essential to acknowledge the many factors that play into whether or not a person will become addicted to or dependent on a specific substance. Drug use is complex and can create intense emotional and physiological reactions that impact everyone differently. Some factors that may play a role in the development of addiction or dependence include:

  • Individual chemistry
  • Substance of choice
  • Intensity of substance use
  • Frequency of substance use
  • Method of administration of the substance

Whether a person has an addiction, a chemical dependence, or both simultaneously, intensive treatment is necessary to ensure lasting recovery. For severe cases of dependence, medical detox is required as it offers 24/7 medical support for those experiencing intense, uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms. Although people may want to go through detox on their own, withdrawal effects can be dangerous without medical supervision.

Detox is not always necessary, although therapy and psychoeducation are critical for those looking to achieve recovery. Intensive drug rehab centers can help treat the underlying symptoms of substance use along with monitoring physical and psychological symptoms of withdrawal. It is essential to uncover the root causes of addiction or dependence as a person works to achieve long-term recovery to prevent relapse from occurring in the future.

Although addiction and dependence are often viewed the same, these two terms describe different conditions. Pinelands Recovery Center of Medford is a premier drug and alcohol treatment center that recognizes the overlap between these two conditions. For more information about our treatment facility or resources for addiction and recovery, call us today at (877) 557-5372.