addiction vs dependence

Drug Addiction Vs Dependence: Understanding The Main Differences

America’s battle with drug addiction and dependency wages on.

It’s been a major problem in this country for countless numbers of years. We’ve seen husbands, wives, children, grandparents, neighbors, and distant friends and relatives taken down dark paths with drugs and alcohol and there’s no way to stop it.

As we become more aware of the perils of longstanding abuse, we become better equipped to fight it and help our loved ones that are in need. Finding help for those dependent and addicted to substances has never been easier, but it’s also hard to empathize when you don’t know what they’re going through.

How do you know when someone needs help? It starts with knowing the meaning of those two words, “dependence” and “addiction”. They connotate the same basic definition to those that aren’t aware of what substance abuse does to your mind and body, but they’re two different things.

In this post, we’re going to talk about addiction vs. dependence. They’re two different concepts relating to the physical and mental state that substance abuse can put you in. Understanding these concepts can give you a better understanding of what a substance abuser goes through and how you can help them.

Addiction vs. Dependence

Addiction and dependence are two different things because they affect two different parts of your brain. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), addiction has an effect on the pleasure and rewards system in your brain and dependence has an effect on the thalamus and the brain stem.

So in a very literal and scientific sense, these are two different illnesses of the brain that can be looked at as two sides of one coin that comes with substance abuse. Let’s now break down the physical and mental effects of both dependence and addiction and find out how they relate to one another.

What Is Dependence?

In the most basic sense, dependence has more to do with the effect that the prolonged use of a substance has on your body, including your brain. It’s defined by NIDA as “a state in which an organism functions normally only in the presence of a drug”.

The drug interferes with the normal workings of one’s brain, but the brain adapts to those interferences and they become the new normal. Over time, the brain goes from being tolerant of the new chemical to completely dependent on it to function. Hence, dependency.

When someone is dependent on a drug, their body thinks that it requires it to function. When someone goes through prolonged use of a substance, they go through a period of intolerance, then a period of increased tolerance until the brain has adapted to the point of depending on the substance to function properly.

As we’ll find out, this doesn’t necessarily mean that someone who is dependent on a substance is addicted to the substance. It’s the chemical change in the body when a new substance is introduced and kept there.

When someone who’s been using a substance stops, that person experiences withdrawal symptoms. This is the body reacting to the sudden removal of the substance that it’s grown accustomed to having around.

It usually takes about a week for withdrawal symptoms to pass and the body goes back to functioning like before.

What Is Addiction?

Addiction seems to relate more to the mental state that prolonged substance abuse puts the subject in. It’s defined as “compulsive substance abuse despite negative consequences”. In a sense, addiction is more of a mental battle and dependence is more of a physical battle.

The effects of addiction on one’s life are immediately obvious. Addicts are unable to stop using the substance, so they need to get their fix no matter the cost to their familial, occupational, and social requirements. Addicts tend to prioritize getting high above all else.

In a similar way to dependence, addiction is characterized by the brain adapting to prolonged use of a substance. It usually starts as a casual and enjoyable activity. But, as the person uses more and more, it becomes more of a necessity than something enjoyable and casual. 

In some instances, as the subject’s tolerance and dependency grow, achieving a high can become more difficult. This leads to huge doses of the drugs being taken. Drug overdose is the leading cause of accidental death in America today.

How Do You Treat Dependence and Addiction?

Though they are two different concepts, dependence is, in many ways, a precursor to addiction. As the body becomes tolerant and eventually dependent on a substance, the mind follows. Addicts are usually dependent on drugs, but dependents aren’t always addicts.

Treating someone that is dependent on substances might require intervention or therapy to deal with their substance abuse. As we stated earlier, if your body is dependent on a substance, you can make a quick recovery by stopping and dealing with the withdrawal period.

For addicts, however, it’s not quite as simple. Because the substance is so ingrained in your lifestyle, it’s unfathomable to abruptly quit using the drug. There are levels of addiction and many different types of treatment available to addicts all over the country. 

In some cases, addiction is easily treatable with outpatient programs that allow the addict to continue going to work and being with their family. In other, more severe cases, inpatient programs are necessary to physically and mentally eradicate the addiction. Some addicts have to go back to rehab several times to beat addiction.

Help Those in Need

Now that you know more about addiction vs. dependence, you can better judge if someone close to you needs professional help.

If you know someone that you think might be dependent on a drug, you should address it with them before it gets worse. Being able to acknowledge dependency gives you a chance to stop before it becomes an addiction.

Addiction is all around us. Most people in America are affected in some way by substance abuse and addiction. The opioid crisis has loomed large over this country for 30 years now and it’s taken many lives. If you know an addict, urge them to seek help before it’s too late.

Visit our website to learn more about what you can do for your loved ones that are dependent on or addicted to substances. The sooner you get them help, the sooner they can make a recovery and get back on their feet.

About the Reviewer: Chris Barnes

Chris BarnesChristopher Barnes has worked in health care for over thirty years. He is a graduate of Alabama State University where he earned a double Bachelor of Science Degree in Social Work and Psychology in 1982. Christopher Barnes is currently the Director of Clinical services at The Discovery House where he has been employed for the past five years. Because of his extensive experience in health care & substance abuse he has an excellent rapport with constituents, clients, and other professional organizations in the counseling/social service community.