The Discovery House Blog

Addiction versus Dependence: What’s the Difference?

December 29, 2012 Addiction Education

Addiction and dependency: these terms are often used interchangeably –both by the layperson and the medical professional –which has led to much confusion about the difference between the two. Nevertheless, addiction and dependence are not the same things. It is important to understand the difference, addiction versus dependence, in order to truly become educated about the disease of addiction/alcoholism.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), addiction is defined as “a chronic, relapsing brain disease that is characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences.” Dependence, on the other hand, refers to the physical dependence of a drug, which causes physiological changes in the mind and body.

Dependence can happen as a result of the ongoing and continued use of a number of different types of drugs. It is important to note that a person can become physically dependent on a drug, but not be considered clinically addicted to it. The opposite is true of addiction, however. When a person is addicted to drugs or alcohol, he or she is also dependent on their particular drug of choice. Confused? Let’s go a little deeper:

Addiction versus Dependence: What's the Difference?

Dependence affects the ones who need the drug, like for pain

Dependence develops over time and can occur in conjunction with the use of a variety of drugs. This is not only true of street drugs like cocaine and heroin; it is also true of legal medications prescribed by a doctor. For instance, a cancer patient may be prescribed pain medication to cope with extreme pain. He or she is not a drug addict and under normal circumstances would not take drugs at all. After prolonged use, however, dependence is inevitable, which is no fault of the patient. Painkillers in particular, like Morphine and Vicodin for example, are notorious for causing dependence among people with serious illnesses.

It is important to note that dependence is identified by two factors –tolerance and withdrawal. Both must be present in order for a person to be considered dependent. Tolerance happens when the body builds a resistance to a particular substance, at which point higher doses of the same drug are needed to produce the same effect. Even if you are taking the drugs as prescribed, under the watchful eye of a medical health professional, the body can build a tolerance.

Likewise, if a chemically dependent person were to suddenly stop taking these drugs, he or she would have the physical reaction of withdrawal. Withdrawal symptoms can range anywhere from mild anxiety to extreme agitation. In severe cases of withdrawal, death becomes possible, which is why it is so important to consult a doctor if you plan to stop taking certain medications or street opiates.

Addiction affects the ones who want it, like for a good time

Addiction is accompanied by all of the elements of dependence. The most obvious difference, however, is that addiction is characterized by a psychological component not found in people who are simply chemically dependent. This manifests as a person’s inability to control their use of drugs or alcohol, which is accompanied by an overall feeling of powerlessness.

Addiction is marked by a person’s compulsive abuse of one or more substances. In spite of the many negative consequences that accompany the use of these mind-altering substances, an addicted person will continue to pursue his or her drug of choice at all costs. Although an addict may want to quit drinking altogether, or use drugs less often, he or she will quickly find they have lost the ability to do so.

Now that you understand the fundamental differences between addiction and dependence, it might be time to ask yourself if either of these conditions is applicable in your own life. If the answer is yes, it’s time to seek professional help.

If you are physically dependent on a drug, it is not wise to quit on your own. Experts in the field of addiction and recovery recommend detoxing in a controlled environment under the care of a health care professional. This way, you alleviate your dependence safely and comfortably, usually in a matter of days. If you are struggling with an addiction, you might need to attend a residential treatment program for several weeks in order to combat your illness. Outpatient treatment is another option. Addiction requires ongoing support and is recovery is a life-long process.

Whether you’re dependent or addicted, don’t wait another day to get help. Chemical dependency is a very serious condition and if you don’t address the problem now, tomorrow may never come.

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