Physical vs. Psychological Dependence: Understanding Addiction

Article Contents

People who suffer from addiction will typically experience both physical and psychological dependence. However, it is possible to become physically dependent on a substance without becoming psychologically addicted. Since addiction is such a complex disease, many people get confused about the difference between physical and psychological dependence.

When suffering from addiction, people deal with a wide variety of issues and challenges that they must overcome. Although the first step towards getting sober is admitting you have a problem and asking for help, the next step is identifying your specific needs so that your treatment plan is best tailored to your situation. This is why, upon enrolling at an addiction treatment center, you will complete an assessment that will gain an understanding of your physical and psychological symptoms.

By targeting both the physical and psychological symptoms of a substance use disorder, patients can safely and effectively be treated. Let’s take a deeper look into the differences between physical and psychological dependence.

Physical Dependence

People who have a physical dependence on a substance, such as drugs or alcohol, will experience withdrawal symptoms when they stop using the substance or reduce the amount of substance used. However, physical dependence doesn’t develop overnight. Instead, it results from prolonged and frequent substance abuse.

Before physical dependence forms, the afflicted individual begins building a tolerance on their substance of choice. Tolerance refers to the phenomenon that occurs when people abuse mood or mind-altering substances so often that their body adjusts to having the substance in the body.[1] As a result, someone who used to get high off taking one pill will need to take increasing amounts of the drug to achieve the desired effects. Tolerance works the same way with alcohol – someone who used to get drunk off of three beers may now need to drink hard liquor in larger amounts in order to get drunk.

When people continue to use drugs or alcohol after becoming tolerant to them, they will develop a physical dependence where they experience withdrawal symptoms when they don’t take the drug. However, certain substances have a higher risk of physical dependence than others. For example, drugs like alcohol, benzodiazepines, methamphetamine, and opioids may result in physical dependence faster than drugs like marijuana or ecstasy. Still, repeated use of any addictive substance can lead to both physical and psychological dependence.

Psychological Dependence

Unlike physical dependence, psychological dependence occurs in the mind of someone who is addicted. As a result, psychological dependence is most closely associated with the blanket term “addiction.” Addiction is often described as a relapsing brain disorder and/or mental illness that is characterized by repeated and compulsive drug-seeking behaviors.[2]

Long-term drug or alcohol abuse leads to changes in the brain’s structure and function. Not only does physical dependence make it difficult for the body to self-regulate, but psychological dependence affects a person’s judgment, decision-making, mental health, and emotional health. For example, someone who is psychologically dependent on drugs or alcohol might continue drinking even after multiple DUIs or legal consequences. Furthermore, people with psychological dependence will experience strong and recurring urges to use drugs, even when they want to stop.

Consequently, people suffering from psychological dependence will spend excess time obtaining drugs, using the drugs, and recovering from the side effects of the drugs. These individuals might neglect their responsibilities at work, home, or school in order to keep up their substance abuse. The psychological aspects of addiction are sometimes so tortuous that they are the hardest symptoms to overcome.

Treating Physical and Psychological Dependence

Since both aspects of addiction are different, physical and psychological dependence are treated differently. Since the main difference between physical and psychological dependence is the occurrence of withdrawal symptoms, medical detox is the first step for people who are physically dependent on drugs and alcohol. Depending on the substance a person is addicted to, withdrawal symptoms may vary, but may include:

  • Aches, pains, abdominal cramps
  • Tremors, muscle spasms, seizures
  • Nausea, diarrhea, vomiting
  • Fever, goosebumps, sweats, and chills
  • Anxiety, depression, irritation, or paranoia
  • Changes in blood pressure, heart rate, and body temperature

Medical detox involves the use of prescription and over the counter medications to help people throughout the detox process. Professional detox centers may even be able to eliminate many withdrawal symptoms, making the process as easy and as comfortable as possible.

Psychological dependence, on the other hand, is treated using behavioral therapies, holistic therapies, and support groups. The goal of these treatments is to help patients identify harmful thoughts or behaviors and replace them with healthier coping mechanisms. These therapies may be held on an individual or group basis but should be individualized to meet each patient’s unique needs. Although detox usually lasts less than a week, addiction treatment programs might last anywhere from 30 days to several months depending on the severity of a person’s symptoms.

Professional Treatment for Physical and Psychological Dependence

In order for addiction treatment to be effective, patients must receive treatment for their physical and psychological symptoms. By attending a residential rehab program, you will be able to confront your addiction, learn how to manage your symptoms, and gain life-long support that will be there for you throughout your sobriety.

If you or someone you know identifies with the symptoms of physical and psychological dependence, you might need addiction treatment. Our staff at Comprehensive Wellness Centers is here to help you every step of the way. Contact us today to get started on the road to recovery.

References:

  1. https://www.naabt.org/addiction_physical-dependence.cfm
  2. https://www.healthline.com/health/psychological-addiction

Medically Reviewed: September 25, 2019

Dr Ashley

Medical Reviewer

Chief Editor

About

All of the information on this page has been reviewed and verified by a certified addiction professional.

Dr Ashley Murray obtained her MBBCh Cum Laude in 2016. She currently practices in the public domain in South Africa. She has an interest in medical writing and has a keen interest in evidence-based medicine.


All of the information on this page has been reviewed and verified by a certified addiction professional.

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