The Distinction Between Addiction and Dependence

There is a clear distinction between addiction and dependence that’s not often well-known. Here, we help to identify the difference between the two.

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When the subject of addiction is brought up, we often only think of substance abuse. Yet, there’s a lot more going on psychologically and physically. While many people find themselves addicted to a substance, some become dependent. And there’s a clear distinction between addition and dependence.

Understandably most think that the two are one in the same even though they are two completely sperate phenomenon’s. We are going to explore these two situations, explain how they are different, how they feed into one another and how you, as an informed reader, can distinguish between the two. At the end, we invite you to ask further questions.

Definition of Addiction

Addiction is the behavior of using an addictive substance to an extent that it interrupts or intercedes on carrying out normal daily functions. ¹

For example, those that are struggling with addiction might fail to meet key obligations to family, friends, and other responsibilities (such as school or work). Those that are addicted have shown an inability to stop the use of that specific substance even when it puts them into situations of consequence (i.e. problems with the law, left homeless, etc.).

People who face a substance abuse disorder often will risk their own well-beings or others for the sake of using and abusing said substances.

That all being said, you do not have to have a physical dependence to have an addiction, although the two often coincide with one another.

Definition of Dependence

Dependence refers to the physical and sometimes mental need for the substance that one might use and wind up abusing in the future. ²

  • Mental dependence refers to when a substance is used in response to an event or feeling. These events or feelings are called triggers, which will cause a mental response which is considered a mental dependency response.
  • Physical dependence is when the body craves the substance and, therefore, causes the person struggling to physically seek out that substance due to the craving. When the body doesn’t receive said substance, the user will experience withdrawal which can sometimes be life-threatening.

In many regards, people who are dependent on a substance need these drugs in order for their body to continue functioning. The brain and body have become so accustomed to these substances that, without them, they can no longer properly function.

The Distinction Between The Two

If you feel as though we are splitting hairs, we understand. The two are so closely related and are so irrevocably linked to one another that it’s hard on the outset to try and make a well informed distinction.

To make things super simple: ³

  • Addiction refers to the behavioral impact and affects that the drugs or substance might cause to the person struggling.
  • Dependence refers to the actual biological responses that occurs within the body that cause the craving of the substance over time.

It’s a difficult distinction to make and it seems as though they really are the same thing. But when you take the concept apart and look at it from a behavior versus biological response perspective, it starts to make sense. As your body starts to crave or depend on the substance, you become addicted as you continue to take the substance.

How They Feed Into One Another

Like we discussed earlier, when people talk about addiction and dependence, it seems that they are the same thing. Although we know that they are separate, they bond almost perfectly together.

However, both cannot happen at the same time. They might occur around the same time, but one always occurs first. Usually a person will become dependent on a substance or drug and, over time, develop a pattern of behavior that correlates to addiction.

That is why certain medical professionals and mental health researchers will say that a patient exhibits addictive behaviors based on a physical dependence.

How to Identify Addiction

Now that we have defined and disseminated the facts that discerns differences between addiction and dependence, we need to go over how to identify addiction signs and symptoms.

The first thing to understand is that addiction is more or less a byproduct to an underlying mental illness called substance use disorder. Substance use disorder refers to when a person exhibits an unhealthy dependence on a specific substance in which they take to excess routinely.

Some of the major signs and symptoms of substance use disorder are: ⁴

  • When a substance is taken in larger amounts or over a longer period than it was intedend
  • Unable or unwilling to try and cut down or stop taking the substance
  • Cravings for the substance that only grow over time
  • Failure to meet major responsibilities either personally or professionally
  • Lack of interest in things that once excited the addict, including social engagements, hobbies, clubs, or sports.
  • Failure to keep up with romantic, platonic or work relationships
  • Using the substance knowing the dangers
  • Drug tolerance or drug withdrawal

We recommend that if you or a loved one find that you suffer from symptoms of drug addiction that you notify your health professional and find a treatment plan that works best for you.

How To Get Help

Admitting that you may have a problem is always a tough realization. It’s even more difficult if you feel lost and unsure of where to go to get the best possible help. However, the first step of recovery is admitting this difficulty.

There are valuable and valid resources that we would like to extend in order to start you on your path to recovery:

SAMHSA National Helpline

Confidential free help, from public health agencies, to find substance use treatment and information. You can call the helpline toll-free at (800) 662-4357

Final Word

Drug and substance abuse is a serious illness. It can affect one’s life, their relationship, their careers and most unfortunately cut their lives short if not taken care of. And although its important to understand the distinction between dependency and addiction, its perhaps more important that if you are having an issue, that you get the help that you need.

Millions of people suffer from addiction and dependence on alcohol and other illicit substances and in order to have the maximum chance of long term sobriety that you reach out, ask for help and stick to the plan for recovery. You may be suffering but you are not alone.

Your Questions

Still have questions concerning substance dependence and addiction?

We invite you to ask them in the comment’s section below. If you have any further advice to offer – whether personal or professional – we’d also love to hear from you.

Reference Sources

¹ News in Health (NIH): Biology of Addiction

² National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA): The Science of Drug Use and Addiction: The Basics

³ National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA): Difference Between Physical Dependence and Addiction?

⁴ DrugFree via Partnership to End Addiction: Identifying Substance Use Disorder & Addiction

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