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5 minutes

Signs & Traits of a Psychological Dependence on Drugs or Alcohol

Medically Reviewed
Last Medically Reviewed on: July 9, 2022
A frustrated man sits on the stairs

Updated on

6 Jul, 2022

While discussions about drug or alcohol dependence often focus on, the physical and chemical changes that occur, another crucial aspect deserves attention: psychological dependence on drugs and alcohol. This term describes the mental and often emotional aspects of substance abuse disorder.

Many people can identify when they depend physically on a substance or drug. But recognizing its emotional and mental grip is much trickier. The term psychological addiction is used more often instead of psychological dependence, but it’s important to know there is a distinct difference between addiction and dependence.

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

On the other hand, dependence is a condition whereby your body, brain, or both have been conditioned to depend on a substance 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 fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) now classifies these all under the umbrella of “substance use disorder.” This makes it easier for doctors to diagnose people struggling with substance use and helps them categorize the severity of the problem.

What Does a Dependence on Drugs Look Like?

People with psychological dependence on alcohol or drugs often experience several symptoms. Their body gets used to the substance (chemical tolerance), they fear withdrawal symptoms, and they have strong cravings. They may also use the substance to escape from problems, which often started their dependence 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 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 builds a more intense chemical dependency.

This stronger chemical dependency is often the basis for another reason or sign of psychological dependence, which is taking a substance out of fear of 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. Therefore, 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. Instead, the individual will need to see counseling to identify the driving forces behind their psychological dependence.

Signs of Psychological Dependence on Alcohol & Drugs

The psychological pull of drugs and alcohol, distinct from physical cravings, can stem from the emotional connection forged between substance use and coping mechanisms. Recognizing these signs is crucial for both yourself and those you care about.

  • Emotional crutch. Do you find yourself reaching for a drink or turning to drugs to manage stress, boost confidence, or escape difficult emotions? If other coping skills go unused, relying on substances for emotional well-being could be a sign of dependence.
  • Cravings beyond the physical. Physical cravings for drugs and alcohol are common, but psychological dependence goes beyond that. You might have intense desires to drink or reach for drugs triggered by emotions like loneliness, boredom, or anxiety.
  • Identity shift. Does your sense of self feel tied to alcohol or drug use? If you feel incomplete without it, the line between enjoyment and dependence might be getting blurry.
  • Difficulty enjoying activities sober. Can you truly relax, celebrate, or hang out without drugs or alcohol? If finding joy in sober activities feels difficult, it might be because you’re relying on the altered state substances provide.

These are just some signs of psychological dependence of drugs and alcohol. Everyone’s experience is different. If you or someone you know struggles with any of these, seeking professional help is crucial.

How Dependency on Drugs Makes It Hard to Quit

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 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 make you feel like you “need” a drink to relax. 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 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 physical dependence, but many have been linked with psychological dependence.

These drugs can include:

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

Other drugs can lead to both physical and psychological dependence, including:

  • Alcohol
  • Benzodiazepines
  • Opiates

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 relationships. If you can fully carry on with your normal life, it can be 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, varies greatly from person to person.

What to Do When You Are Ready to Break the Cycle of Addiction

Detox is a specific process that targets the physical symptoms of withdrawal. However, 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 psychological dependence are:

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

Treatment for drugs and 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 us. We can help you through detox and the psychological work that needs to be done afterward.

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.

Infinite Recovery has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations for our references. We avoid using tertiary references as our sources. You can learn more about how we source our references by reading our editorial guidelines and medical review policy.


  1. American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5-TR). Accessed October 21, 2022.
  2. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Substance Abuse/Chemical Dependency. Retrieved October 21, 2022.
  3. Raypole, C. Healthline. Everything You Need To Know About Psychological Dependence. Published May 28, 2020. Retrieved October 21, 2022.

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Michael Dadashi

Medical Content Writer

Family owned and operated since 2014, Infinite Recovery was founded by Michael & Ylianna Dadashi to give those struggling with addiction a second chance and help to rebuild their lives. Clean and sober since 2009, Michael is passionate about helping others discover their authentic self and live a life of true freedom and purpose.

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