Physical vs. Psychological Dependency: What’s the Difference?

Physical and psychological dependence refer to the hold that a substance or behavior has on the addict’s body and mind. While there is much overlap between the two, and they typically occur in tandem, it helps to see some of the differences between them. Physical dependence has to do with the condition of the body itself in relation to the substance. With prolonged use, tolerance builds so that the body becomes not only accustomed to the presence of the drug, but also relies upon it for “normal” functioning. In the absence of the drug there is craving, and attempts to cease use suddenly will result in physiological withdrawal symptoms. These symptoms will vary by individual, substance and the severity of the addiction or dependence. While addictions may be accompanied by a physical dependence, and physical dependence typically suggests addiction, this is not always the case. An individual may experience physical dependence without being addicted, such as in the case of prescription painkillers. The body develops tolerance and dependence, but this is not immediately indicative of addiction. In other cases the individual may be “addicted,” such as in the case of gambling addiction or an eating disorder, but not physically dependent. Psychological dependence describes the addict’s emotional need for the substance or behavior. The body’s cells may not battle to withdraw but the individual will struggle emotionally with letting go. This is due to the behavior’s “reinforcing” nature; the brain’s reward system is stimulated, providing a sense of calm, or some other desired effect, and ensuring that the behavior will be perpetuated. Psychological dependence can be as powerful as physical dependence and the addict will need help in reestablishing mental and emotional equilibrium as he or she seeks to live a sober life. Eliminating an addictive substance or behavior from your life is never easy. But as you make the decision to pursue a life in recovery, free of addiction, the staff at Sundance is committed to helping you work through emotional and physical withdrawal so that you may begin to thrive in sobriety. Abrupt, unmonitored cessation of particular drugs or “going cold turkey” can be damaging to the body and even fatal, as well as emotionally jarring. The rate of relapse is high. For the safest, most effective results, addicts should plan to detox safely under the care of a professional and within a treatment setting.

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