When you hear or read discussions of drug or alcohol dependence, you hear most about the physical, chemical dependency that is created when someone becomes addicted to drugs or alcohol. But there is another type of dependency, psychological dependence, which is a term used to describe the mental and often emotional aspects of substance abuse disorder. 

Many people will be able to identify when they are physically dependent on a substance or drug, but it is far harder to objectively evaluate one’s own emotional or mental state regarding an addiction. Often called a psychological addiction rather than a psychological dependence, there is a distinct difference between addiction and dependence. 

Addiction is an identifiable mental disorder that centers around substance use even in light of potential negative consequences and outcomes. It is made up of both mental and physical aspects that are often very difficult to separate and can be a very complex condition. 

Dependence, on the other hand, is a condition whereby either your body, brain, or both have been conditioned to depend on a substance that the individual consumes. Often the consumption of the substance is merely to prevent withdrawal symptoms since the tolerance to the substance is generally substantial. 

The DSM-5 or the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, now classifies these all under the umbrella of “substance use disorder”. Substance use disorder simplifies the diagnosis and allows the classification of substance use disorder by severity.

What Does a Psychological Dependence on Drugs Look Like?

Many of the symptoms of a psychological dependence are centered around the chemical tolerance that the user builds up during their period of use, avoiding potential withdrawal symptoms, and the primarily psychological symptoms associated with addiction such as the intense drug cravings and the reasons that cause substance abuse escapism in the first place.

The tolerance that many addicts build to their substance of choice is one of the primary factors that drive psychological dependence. As an individual uses a substance over time, their body and mind become used to it, and the effects or “high” that the user once experienced are then no longer attainable. At this point, many users begin taking larger and larger doses in an attempt to recapture that feeling. While this does not lead to more intense highs, it does serve to build a more intense chemical dependency.

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This stronger chemical dependency is often the basis for another reason or sign of psychological dependence, which is taking a substance out of fear for the withdrawal symptoms. For many illegal and commonly abused drugs, the withdrawal symptoms can be incredibly uncomfortable, even painful and traumatic. This can instill a literal fear of withdrawal for many users of drugs like heroin or meth. Even though they do not feel the same effects, they will frequently take what is referred to as a maintenance dose, which is what they take solely to avoid the possibility of withdrawal symptoms and sickness.

Some users are prone to psychological dependence no matter what substance they use. This can happen when there are underlying causes of addiction that are not addressed or resolved sufficiently to remove the root cause of an individual seeking to use drugs. When conditions like this are present, no amount of detox or maintenance dosing will help. The individual will need to see counseling in order to identify the driving forces behind their psychological dependence.

How a Psychological Dependence on Drugs Makes It Harder to Quit Using

While psychological dependence and addiction are often experienced together, they often overlap. Many individuals do not have an addiction, but are psychologically dependent on their drug of choice. One of the most common examples is having a drink after work. You may start out with drinking a beer or a glass of wine when you get home, but over time your brain may associate the relaxation of the drink with something that helps you unwind after a stressful day. This can lead to feeling like you “need” a drink in order to feel relaxed. If you’re unable to have your nightly drink, you may become worried or anxious that you won’t be able to relax.

While a nightly glass of wine may not seem like a big deal, and it certainly isn’t the risky addictive behavior that you would associate with an alcoholic or drug addict, this inability to relax without a drink is a true indication of having a psychological dependence.

Not all drugs have been directly linked to a physical dependence, but many have been linked with a psychological dependence. These drugs include:

  • Cocaine
  • Inhalants
  • LSD
  • Marijuana
  • Psilocybin (magic mushrooms)

There are other drugs that can lead to both a physical and psychological dependence, including:

  • Alcohol
  • Benzodiazepines
  • Opiates

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Psychological dependencies can be extremely hard to overcome, especially if your use hasn’t negatively impacted your life yet, such as costing you money, affecting your job, or having any bearing on your personal relationships. If you are able to fully carry on your normal life, it can be really hard to admit that you have a problem. The timeline for withdrawals or a physical dependency is pretty straightforward and relatively the same across the board. Treating psychological dependencies, however, vary greatly from person to person.

Treatment Options When You Have a Psychological Dependence on Drugs or Alcohol

Detox is a specific process that targets the physical symptoms of withdrawal. Detoxing is often just the first step, as there can be many potential mental and psychological factors at play as well.

Some of the most common treatments for a psychological dependence are:

  • Support Groups
  • Therapy
  • Medication
  • Outpatient and inpatient therapies

Treatment for a psychological dependency is best done with the help of an addiction specialist or mental health professional. One of the first steps you can take is to contact treatment professionals so they can help you through detox and the psychological work that needs to be done afterwards.

You deserve the opportunity to live a life free from the bondage of addiction. Invest in yourself now and your future self will thank you.

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