The US has been entrenched in the war on drugs for decades, and countless varieties of drugs make their way into new users’ hands daily. These individuals often embark on a voyage to a  that they never envisioned they would become stuck in. In most cases, though, just a single use can be enough for them to become dependent.

However, the ongoing epidemic of drug addiction that our country has been wrestling with for many years usually isn’t due to the drug users consciously deciding to destroy their lives. It is most often due to the chemical dependency created in the user and generally cannot be effectively mitigated without professional help.

It can be difficult to understand chemical dependency and how it may differ from the common perception of drug addiction. Additionally, many symptoms or signs of chemical dependency can be seen in someone living with dependency. While some will only be noticeable by those with close relationships with the user, some signs will be quite obvious once you know what you’re looking for.

What Is Chemical Dependency?

Chemical dependency is a primary condition that results in a person becoming addicted to one or more substances, like drugs or alcohol. This chemical dependency causes the individual to continue using the substance even when it is demonstrably damaging their bodies, finances, relationships, and more. This isn’t done because they actively try to bring struggle and strife to their lives. It’s often done because their bodies have grown to depend on the substance or the effects it causes, and they cannot stop using it themselves.

Individuals that use addictive drugs eventually develop a chemical dependency because their body needs the drug to operate in a nearly normal capacity. When they attempt to reduce or even stop usage altogether, they begin to feel the beginnings of the detox stage and the subsequent withdrawal symptoms. The withdrawal symptoms are the body’s reaction to intense disruption in its new normal chemistry.

For many drug users, these withdrawal symptoms can be the main reason the attempts to quit using are unsuccessful since they can be incredibly uncomfortable and even painful in some cases. In addition, depending on what drug the individual is suffering from, there may even be withdrawal symptoms that present potential medical dangers, as some drugs can cause symptoms like delirium and seizures. In cases like these, working with professional addiction specialists can not only make the initial detox and withdrawal stage much more comfortable, but they can also ensure that any risks for potential complications during the process are minimized.

Anyone using a potentially addictive substance can develop a chemical dependency, not just those using illicit drugs like heroin, meth, or cocaine. For example, those with chronic or difficult-to-treat pain may be prescribed painkillers to help them minimize the pain and cope more easily. However, opioid painkillers, in particular, are known to be one of the drug types most commonly known for building serious chemical dependencies in users.

Where opioids are concerned, chemical dependence can quickly happen due to how opioids interact with the central nervous system. Opioids attach to specific neural receptors, which then causes large amounts of the neurotransmitter dopamine to be released, far more than is normally released even during normally highly enjoyable activities. The neurons in the brain and body will adapt to repeated exposure to intense dopamine releases, causing changes to the reward pathways and building the foundation for eventual withdrawal syndrome and symptoms. 

Signs of a Chemical Dependency

When someone has developed a chemical dependency, there will often be many signs visible to those who are close and those who may not be. While there may be behavioral, physical, and even psychological changes that indicate someone has become dependent on a drug, those will generally be highly dependent on the substance they have become dependent on. 

There are also official criteria outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, fifth edition, to determine if substance use disorder is a possible diagnosis. The criteria published in the DSM-V have decades of research, clinical knowledge, and experience, which can help some individuals self-diagnose if they may have a problem.

These criteria include:

  • Consistent cravings to use the substance
  • Using a substance for longer than prescribed
  • Spending a significant amount of time getting, using, or recovering from using a substance
  • Continuing to use the substance even when it puts the individual in danger or has negative effects on them
  • Continuing to use the substance even when it causes damage to relationships
  • Neglecting work, school, or home activities due to using the substance
  • Losing interest in social or recreational activities that were once important
  • Wanting to reduce to stop using the substance, but being unable to themselves
  • Developing a tolerance, meaning the individual needs to either use the substance more often or use larger amounts of it to get a similar effect
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when substance use is reduced or stopped
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Chemical Dependency Side Effects

There are many types of drugs that build chemical dependency in the individuals that use them, and each drug will subsequently create side effects of dependency and withdrawal that are unique to them. While some side effects may be common across drug families, many will depend greatly on what substance was causing the dependency.

Some of the more commonly experienced side effects of chemical dependency include high emotional instability. This can result in severe bouts of depression, feelings of intense anxiety that can sometimes become severe panic attacks, and irritability or agitation that, in some cases, can be extreme and even manifest as aggression or rage. There will often be a polar opposite effect as well, which will make the individual sporadically euphoric.

Many of the behavioral changes that will become apparent will be due to the reorganized priorities in the individual’s life. One of the first side effects that will be noticed will usually be the individual neglecting work, school, or home responsibilities due to increased substance usage. Often, this will accompany their withdrawal from recreational or social activities they previously enjoyed.

Physical side effects of a chemical dependency may include increasing neglect for personal grooming and appearance, as well as basic hygiene. Depending on the drug involved, they may even show up to work or school, appearing intoxicated. Those with a chemical dependency will also begin attending school or working less or with less punctuality, leading them to be suspended or expelled from school or fired from their occupation. 

Losing their job can exacerbate growing difficulties in obtaining enough money to keep obtaining the drug. Often this will lead to legal problems revolving around financing their need to keep using and will usually be accompanied by repeated requests for money from friends and family members. They may even begin using substances in risky or outright dangerous situations, increasing legal burdens. 

Additional signs that someone may be battling a chemical dependency include:

  • Hyperactivity
  • Difficulty in maintaining interpersonal relationships
  • Amotivational syndrome, or a significant decrease in motivation
  • Stealing money or other valuables from friends or family
  • Sudden and significant changes in their circle of friends
  • Seeming to lose control over their ability to moderate their substance use
  • Preoccupation with obtaining and using the substance
  • Exacerbation of existing medical conditions
  • Blackouts or other memory issues
  • Infections from drug use or risky behavior as a result of drug use
  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Dilated or constricted pupils that have a decreased pupillary response
  • Lethargy or constant fatigue
  • Reduced or depressed respiration
  • Increase in mental illness symptoms or severity
  • Paranoia, fearfulness, and angry outbursts
  • Continued drug use despite the negative consequences the individual may experience
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What To Do If You Are Experiencing Chemical Dependency

Suppose you or someone you care about may be experiencing a chemical dependency. In that case, the best thing you can do is reach out today and speak confidentially to an experienced addiction specialist about treatment. Working with professional medical staff during the early stages of the detox and withdrawal stage will give the individual the best chance at a successful recovery. 

Many solo attempts at recovery fail and end in relapse due to the difficulty of completing the withdrawal stage and the accompanying uncomfortable or even painful withdrawal symptoms. But when recovery begins with experienced healthcare professionals, the withdrawal process can be made much more comfortable by conducting it in a clean and safe environment, and the potential for dangerous medical complications can be significantly reduced. This can help the individual start their recovery with the strongest foundation possible.


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. Koob GF, Volkow ND. Neurobiology of addiction: a neurocircuitry analysis. Lancet Psychiatry. 2016;3(8):760-773. doi:10.1016/S2215-0366(16)00104-8
Amanda Stevens, BS

Medical Content Writer

Amanda Stevens, BS

Amanda is a prolific medical content writer specializing in eating disorders and addiction treatment. She graduated Magnum Cum Laude from Purdue University with a B.S. in Social Work. As a person in recovery from disordered eating, she is passionate about seeing people heal and transform. She writes for popular treatment centers such as Ocean Recovery, Ascendant NY, The Heights Treatment, Epiphany Wellness, New Waters Recovery and adolescent mental health treatment center BasePoint Academy. In her spare time she loves learning about health, nutrition, meditation, spiritual practices, and enjoys being the a mother of a beautiful daughter.

Last medically reviewed June 30, 2022

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