Although people commonly use both the terms dependence and addiction, there is a clear difference between dependence and addiction.

When we’re describing someone who is suffering from substance abuse or engaged in certain activities that drastically changes their behaviour, both dependence and addiction can be described as this. However, there is a distinct difference between dependence and addiction that we should all be aware of.

If someone is abusing a substance and they become physically dependent on it, they’re referred to as a dependent; this alone isn’t always an addiction but will likely accompany an addiction. Addiction can be defined as an activity or habit that is initially enjoyed by a person, which later develops into addiction as higher amounts are needed to achieve a similar high. People with addiction also typically become uncontrolled in their behaviours and their relationships become strained.

So, what is the difference between dependence and addiction? Dependence typically refers to the physical symptoms of withdrawal and tolerance, whereas addiction is usually referring to substance abuse and the associated harmful behaviours. This means it’s possible to have a physical dependence on a substance without being addicted, although this is usually not far from happening.

Dependence develops into an addiction when a significant change in behaviour occurs which is caused by biochemical changes in the brain because of dangerous and excessive substance abuse. Understanding dependence and addiction is very important, particularly when you’re trying to help a loved one who is suffering from substance abuse or trying to understand what you’re going through yourself. Knowing how to differentiate dependence and addiction will aid your long-term recovery from addiction and dependence.

Understanding Alcohol and Drug Dependence

The primary cause of drug or alcohol dependence is long-term consumption of the addictive substance. If someone is dependent on drugs or alcohol, they’ll typically feel as though they can’t function normally unless they have consumed their chosen substance. Drug or alcohol dependence can have a devastating impact on many aspects of your life, both physically and psychologically.

Psychological dependence is when you associate consuming drugs or alcohol with a sense of relief or calm, so you feel as though you need to drink or take drugs to relieve your discomfort. Some of the most common physical signs and symptoms of dependence include detachment from reality, aching muscles, sweating, shaking, increased heart rate, hallucinations, difficulty concentrating, and anxiety, all of which are withdrawal symptoms. It’s clear to see that physical dependence and its implications can be incredibly dangerous.

When it comes to differentiating dependence and tolerance, tolerance occurs when your body gets so used to consuming drugs or alcohol, it requires a higher and higher dosage to achieve the desired effects. Some of the most common signs and symptoms of tolerance include nausea, insomnia, depression, anxiety, aggression, irritability, and decreased appetite. When you build up a tolerance to dangerous substances, you put yourself at high risk of addiction, physical or psychological dependence, overdose, chronic pain, mental health issues, and seizures.

Signs and Symptoms of Addiction

Addiction is very different to dependence as it focuses either on the chemical (substance abuse) or behavioural addiction (compulsive behaviours that you continue despite no positive outcome). When someone is suffering from an addiction, they will keep participating in dangerous behaviour, even though they’re aware of the negative consequences. They lose control over their behaviour which can rapidly deteriorate their physical and psychological health.

If you’re an addict, you’ll likely be unable to stop thinking about what you’re addicted to, whether that’s drugs, alcohol, sex, gambling, food, technology, etc. You may be hiding your addiction or be in denial about it, you may be experiencing withdrawal symptoms, not be able to stop, build up your tolerance, have trouble managing daily responsibilities, or begin isolating yourself.

Some of the most common dangers associated with addiction include financial concerns, mental health issues, legal trouble, losing relationships, problems with your career, altering brain chemistry, and long-term or potentially life-threatening physical health problems.

Treatment Approaches for Addiction

If you’re suffering from an addiction, the best place to start is to first acknowledge that you need support. If you’re comfortable, discussing it with your family and friends can also be a huge help; people often underestimate the effectiveness of support groups and simply talk things through. If you have this support network of loved ones, it also makes it easier to build up the motivation to seek out professional addiction treatment.

There are a wide variety of treatment options for addiction, what’s right for one person may not be right for you so personalisation is key. Most private drug and alcohol rehab centres will offer a personalised treatment programme. They have the time and resources available to discuss your needs, identify your triggers and understand what may have caused your addiction. Using this information, they can design a tailored addiction treatment programme, carefully choosing the most beneficial therapy options for your recovery from addiction and dependence.

These therapies could include detoxification, counselling, cognitive behavioural therapy (also known as CBT), dialectical behaviour therapy, stress management, relapse prevention, mediation therapy, art therapy, music therapy, fitness therapy, yoga, mindfulness, and nutritional supplement therapy. Treatment options for addiction are also available with the NHS, although because of their time and resource constraints, are often unable to offer a personalised treatment programme.

We strongly encourage you to seek out professional advice if you or a loved one is living with an addiction. The first place to start is with your local GP, or alternatively, search for your local drug service by phoning Addiction Advocates on 0800 012 6088.