The differences between the terms “addiction” and “dependence” can be challenging to comprehend, especially since the terms can be used interchangeably by many different groups and organizations. Furthermore, it can be further confusing to determine which term to use as many organizations have chosen to abandon both terms and categorize both as a “substance use disorder” instead. 

However, because “addiction” and “dependence” are still used quite frequently, it may be helpful to find ways to distinguish between the two, as there are differences in both terms. Knowing the difference between these different substance abuse disorder terms may even help one to distinguish if immediate help and treatment is needed. As such, understanding these subtle differences can help to distinguish how serious the substance abuse disorder has progressed and how vital the need for immediate intervention and treatment may be.

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Differences Between Addiction vs Dependence

The term “dependence”, when referring to a substance abuse disorder, indicates a physical or physiological dependence to a substance. This generally derives from the level of tolerance and withdrawal symptoms experienced by the user that may keep the user in a cycle of taking the drug for the long term. As such, the user has become tolerant to the drug and now needs higher doses of the drug in order to feel functional and to ward off any symptoms of withdrawal. This is due to the fact that the body has become adept at taking the drug and, therefore, requires an increased dosage in order to achieve the same effects it once did. Different types of tolerance include:

  • Acute tolerance: This type of tolerance is characterized by tolerance that is built within a short amount of time. Repeated usage of a substance can cause a short-term tolerance to the drug, as in the case with cocaine when the high experienced from the first dose is more intense than further doses within a short period of time.
  • Chronic tolerance: This occurs when a substance is abused frequently and regularly over a long duration of time. Because the body adapts to this type of abuse, a person who has a chronic tolerance to a drug has to continue to take more of a drug in order to achieve the desired effect. 
  • Learned tolerance: This can happen when someone who regularly abuses substances has learned to conceal the effects the drug has on their system and, thus, are able to “play off” the severity of their tolerance. This can be especially dangerous as the person abusing the drug may have less of a chance to recover because their abuse is not well pronounced to outsiders. 

Unfortunately, physical dependence on a drug is common even in well-intentioned people. Because certain medications are extremely habit-forming, people that suffer from physical or emotional distress may end up with a tolerance to the drug, even if taken as instructed by a doctor or clinician. Furthermore, because withdrawal from these types of medications can oftentimes be intense, the user may find it difficult to detox off the medication, keeping them in a state of physical dependence for the long-term. While physical dependence does not imply an addiction, it certainly can lead to one and oftentimes does. 

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An addiction, on the other hand, implies a compulsive use of drugs despite the knowledge of any harmful consequences that may come to the user as a result. This results in the user becoming unable to stop using the drug, even with earnest attempts to do so, and may accompany things like

  • Failure to perform daily tasks
  • Inability to meet work, social, or family obligations, 
  • Withdrawal and isolation from loved ones
  • Hiding or lying drug usage
  • Getting involved in criminal activity in order to obtain more drugs
  • Continuing to take a drug long after it’s needed for a health problem
  • Spending a lot of time obsessing over drug usage
  • Losing interest in things that you once enjoyed doing
  • Borrowing or stealing money in order to buy more drugs
  • A change in your physical appearance: losing or gaining weight, bloodshot eyes, etc. 
  • Taking medications with other drugs or alcohol

An addiction is further defined by changes in the biochemistry of the brain that occur as a result of prolonged substance abuse. Because substance abuse becomes the focus of the user’s life, regardless of how harmful their behavior is to themselves or others, a person under the grips of addiction can act irrationally, especially when they no longer have the substance they are addicted to in their system. As such, addiction gives rise to both a mental and physical reliance on a substance.

How to Get Help if You Have an Addiction or Dependence on a Drug

Whether you are physically dependent on a drug or have an addiction, it is vital that you receive the help and guidance of a medically trained professional when detoxing off the abused substance. Furthermore, because there is a fine line between dependence and addiction, as most dependence ends up gravitating towards an addiction, it is important that one seek help at the earliest stages of tolerance to a drug. This can help mitigate, or even prevent, a full-blown addiction from taking place. One of the best ways to recover from dependence or addiction to a drug is through the support of an inpatient/intensive outpatient drug rehab, as it can give you a space to heal from the depths of substance abuse so that you do not return to abusing drugs in the future. 

If an addiction has already taken root in your life, it is never more important than now to take proactive steps to ensure you have a successful and lifelong recovery. Addiction is a serious matter and needs to be treated as such. 

By taking control of your future now through the help and guidance of trained addiction professionals, you can reduce your chances of something serious, even life threatening from happening. Whether it’s a dependence on a drug or an addiction, the time to get help is now. Don’t let another precious moment of your life slip you by through the bondage of addiction. Reach out now and get on the path to a better, more fulfilling future immediately.

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