Physical vs Psychological Dependence

Addictive substances can completely take over your life and make you feel powerless. When you rely on a substance to function, all of your other priorities fade away until your only goal is to find more of the drug. Dependence can get worse and worse over time, and reducing or stopping the use of the substance can lead to serious withdrawal symptoms.

Physical vs Psychological Dependence

Dependence has two major components: physical and psychological. Some drugs are primarily physically addictive, and others create mostly psychological dependence. Understanding physical vs psychological dependence can help you gain clarity on your own addiction and what to expect as you recover. Treatment options are available for both physical and psychological addictions, and recovery is always possible.

What Is Physical Dependence?

Physical dependence can occur when your body becomes so used to a substance that it relies on it to function normally. Different drugs affect the body in different ways, but the changes usually begin on a neurological level. A substance might increase or decrease certain brain chemicals, which in turn produces an effect on other systems throughout your body.

As your brain adjusts to the supply of the substance, it may stop producing enough of these chemicals on its own. At this point, your body relies on the drug to maintain its normal functioning, and it may be unable to function without the substance.

Physical dependence is associated with tolerance. Because your brain and body are getting used to the presence of the drug in your system, you may stop feeling the drug’s desired effects. Instead, your body is simply using the drug to maintain its baseline functioning. Now, you need to consume more and more of the drug to get the same experience you once felt at a lower dose.

Dependence occurs gradually as your body builds up a tolerance for the drug. You may not realize that you’re physically dependent on a substance until you quit or dramatically decrease your dosage. The sudden withdrawal symptoms can be very frightening and painful, so many people start taking their drug of choice again to avoid the withdrawal. At this point, you may not enjoy the substance at all anymore, and you may be desperate to get sober. However, the physical withdrawal is so challenging that it feels impossible to stop.

Symptoms of Physical Dependence

Recognizing addiction in yourself or a loved one can be difficult. No one wants to admit that they’re physically dependent on a substance, and you may go months or years before you’re forced to face the reality of the situation. The earlier you seek help, though, the better. Here are some of the most common signs of physical dependence to look out for:

  • Needing larger or more frequent doses of a substance to feel the effects
  • Being unable to take a day off from using the substance
  • Choosing the substance over everything else
  • Anxiety or panic attacks at the idea of quitting

Stopping or reducing your use of a drug can lead to physical withdrawal symptoms when you’re dependent on it. Withdrawal symptoms can vary based on the substance you’re dependent on and the severity of your addiction. In some cases, these symptoms are painful but not dangerous. With some substances, though, physical withdrawal can be life-threatening. The following are examples of withdrawal symptoms after physical addiction:

  • Muscle spasms or tremors
  • Aches and pains
  • Fever, chills, or sweating
  • Increase or decrease in heart rate and blood pressure
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Insomnia
  • Auditory or visual hallucinations
  • Seizures

If you face intense withdrawal symptoms when trying to quit a drug, you should consult with your doctor about a supervised detox plan. With medical intervention, you can safely detox from the substance and receive treatment for the worst symptoms.

Examples of Physically Addictive Substances

Some substances are more strongly addictive than others, and some are associated with a higher risk of physical dependence. Addiction is also a highly personal experience, so the timeline for dependence can vary significantly from individual to individual. One person might start building a tolerance to a substance right away, but someone else might use the same drug for months or years without becoming physically dependent. Here are some of the most common substances that have physically addictive properties:

  • Alcohol
  • Opiates
  • Benzodiazepines
  • Barbiturates
  • Nicotine

What Is Psychological Dependence?

Psychological dependence is mental or emotional reliance on a drug. Most people take drugs for their psychological effects, and it’s easy to become dependent on feeling high. Just like some people depend on gambling, overeating, or other vices to cope with their struggles and feel good about their lives, people with a psychological dependence on a substance need their drug of choice to regulate their emotional state.

Emotional dependence often has a neurological basis. Drugs can increase or decrease levels of neurotransmitters in your brain that control your mood. Without the drug, you can start to feel depressed, anxious, angry, or numb. Psychological dependence goes beyond the neurological changes in your brain, though. Regardless of whether or not the substance has altered your brain chemistry, you feel like you can’t quit because you can’t face your life without the drug.

People with an emotional dependence on a drug often have co-occurring mental health disorders. If you’re struggling with depression, anxiety, trauma, or other issues, you might turn to drugs or alcohol to numb your painful emotions and cope with your life. Taking away the substance would leave you to face your challenges alone, which can feel much too difficult. To truly heal from your addiction, you have to address both the substance use and its underlying causes.

Symptoms of Psychological Dependence

When you’re psychologically dependent on a drug, you may experience mental cravings for the substance. It might be one of the first things you think about when you wake up, and you may feel anxious or on-edge until you can consume the drug. You might make excuses to keep taking the drug even when it creates problems in your life, and you may try to conceal the extent of your substance use from your loved ones.

Trying to quit the substance can lead to the following withdrawal symptoms:

  • Anxiety, nervousness, or restlessness
  • Panic attacks
  • Irritability or aggression
  • Mood swings
  • Depression or lack of motivation
  • Fatigue
  • Changes in sleeping patterns
  • Loss of appetite or increased appetite

Examples of Psychologically Addictive Substances

You can become emotionally or psychologically dependent on any substance or behavior that makes you feel good. Drugs that cause physical dependence can also cause psychological addiction, but there are also substances that are known for causing primarily psychological dependence. Here are some examples of emotionally addictive substances:

  • Many types of stimulants, such as Adderall or cocaine
  • Cannabis
  • Hallucinogens
  • Inhalants
  • Certain psychotropic medications

It’s important to note that, although these substances are more strongly associated with psychological dependence, there may be a physical component to their addictive qualities. Research into dependence and addiction is ongoing, but quitting these substances could still cause physical symptoms.

Can You Have One Without the Other?

It’s impossible to separate the mind from the body, so you cannot perfectly sort experiences into physical versus psychological. Your brain is a part of your body, and your neurology plays a role in your physical symptoms as well as your mental and emotional state. Many signs and symptoms of addiction are present with both physical and psychological dependence, and emotional withdrawal may feel similar to physical withdrawal in some cases.

However, some drugs are known to cause more severe physical addiction, and others are known for their psychologically addictive qualities. For example, experts debate whether or not marijuana is physically addictive. Your body may get used to being under the influence of cannabis, but you won’t face dangerous or life-threatening symptoms from quitting marijuana use. The emotional withdrawal from marijuana can be very painful, though, especially if you use the drug to cope with challenges in your life.

It is possible to be physically dependent on a substance without being psychologically addicted to it. For instance, many people are addicted to caffeine and experience withdrawal symptoms if they stop drinking coffee, but they’re not emotionally dependent on the substance. When it comes to illicit drugs and alcohol, though, physical addiction is usually accompanied by psychological addiction. Once you’ve become physically dependent on a drug, you are probably also attached to its psychological effects.

Treatment Options for Addiction

Treating physical addiction sometimes looks different than treating psychological addiction. If you need to recover from alcohol, benzodiazepines, or other dangerously addictive substances, your doctor will most likely recommend attending a detox program. Detox centers are staffed by medical professionals who will monitor you and ensure your safety as you withdraw from the drug. They may administer medications to prevent you from having seizures or other severe side effects as your body adjusts.

Overcoming physical dependence is only the first step in addiction recovery, though. You have to address the mental and emotional aspects of your substance use disorder, too. By working through the root cause of your addiction and developing coping skills to prevent relapse, you can achieve long-term sobriety.

Inpatient rehab programs are the best option for addiction recovery as they provide 24/7 support. You’re in a safe, private environment with professionals who know how to help. They’ll work with you as you navigate your first few days or weeks without substance use, and they’ll equip you with the tools you need to maintain your sobriety after you’re discharged.

Mental health counseling and support groups are also great resources for overcoming physical or psychological dependence on a substance. Many patients attend a detox program, spend a few weeks at an inpatient program, and then attend weekly individual or group therapy sessions to continue strengthening their mental health. By surrounding yourself with support, you set yourself on the path for long-term success.

Physical and psychological dependence are two different experiences, but they often go hand-in-hand. Whether you feel physically or mentally addicted to a substance, you are deserving of support. You can reach out to your doctor or to an addiction professional to learn more about your treatment options.