Is There a Difference Between Dependence and Addiction?


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For years, we used the word addiction to describe someone who’s developed a use disorder when it comes to drugs or alcohol. The fact is that addiction is one side of the two-sided equation that makes up a substance use disorder, with the other being dependence.

To help you discern the difference between dependence and addiction and how they work together to wreak havoc on your life, our team here at Tres Vistas Recovery presents the following discussion.

Naming a difficult problem

Abuse, misuse, addiction, dependency — these are all words that have been used to label a very serious problem that arises when you use drugs or alcohol in a certain way. Dissatisfied that any of these words alone fully encompassed the problem, which has been described as a disease of the mind, body, and spirit, medical experts have settled on the term “substance use disorder.”

Calling the problem a substance use disorder not only allows for the many facets of the disease to be adequately included, but it also recognizes a foundational fact — it’s an illness that should be treated like any other health issue.

Two sides to a bad equation

For people who have a substance use disorder, two components are evident:

1. Dependence

This aspect of a substance use disorder describes the physical reliance that your body has developed toward your substance of choice, which is what creates the withdrawal symptoms when you try and quit. Dependence may also cause you to use more of your drug of choice as your body builds up a tolerance.

When you do try and quit, you may be met with withdrawal symptoms that can range from shakes and tremors to more serious grand mal seizures, depending upon what you’re trying to withdraw from.

Making matters slightly more complicated, we’ve just described physical dependence, which doesn’t take into account mental dependence. You may have certain triggers that elicit a physical response in your body, and the only way to quell the response is through using. For example, certain situations or people may raise your anxiety levels, and you’ve come to rely on drugs or alcohol to lower your anxiety.

2. Addiction

The other side to the substance use disorder equation is addiction, which is the term we use to describe the behavioral changes that occur due to biochemical changes in your brain.

The longer you misuse drugs or alcohol, the more your brain readjusts its neural pathways to accommodate the use. Not only does your brain form new neural pathways that favor using, but your brain may also begin to only release natural feel-good chemicals, such as dopamine when you use them.

As a result of the rewiring in your brain, an addiction can form, which can lead to:

  • Uncontrollable cravings
  • The inability to quit using (loss of control)
  • Obsessive thoughts that surround using
  • Denial
  • Isolation
  • Risky behaviors

All of these can greatly impact your ability to function normally, placing relationships, careers, and more, in danger.

Tackling both dependence and addiction 

At our practice, we understand that the key to successfully breaking free from a substance use disorder is tackling both sides of the equation. First, we can help you safely detox from drugs or alcohol with medication-assisted treatments that are designed to greatly reduce the withdrawal symptoms that come with dependence.

Once we clear your body and break the dependence, we concentrate on the addiction side of the equation. Here again, certain medications can help control your addiction to help your brain form healthier neural pathways.

The bottom line is that when you understand and address the different components of a substance use disorder, the better able you will be to successfully break free.

If you’d like to take your first steps toward breaking your dependence and addiction, contact our office in San Juan Capistrano, California.

"A great group of people who are passionate about helping people. The whole staff strives to make their clients feel safe and comfortable as possible."
"I have experienced a couple of different recovery programs and Tres Vistas is by far the best."
"Dr. Dan and The Tres Vistas Team really cares and makes sure that the clients receive the highest quality care."
"Dr. Headrick and the staff of this facility are amazing and always willing to go above and beyond to help others, no matter the circumstances!!"
"Professional and caring addiction treatment. The staff cares about each and every client. They help us sooo much!"
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