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Addiction vs. Dependence: What’s the Difference?

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A substance abuse disorder is a serious condition that affects billions of people all over the world. So much so that a multitude of information could be found relevant to addiction data and dependence particulars. With this in mind, it is essential to understand the difference between addiction and dependence

How is Addiction Different from Dependence?

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To put a practical difference between the two, addiction is a mental disorder, while physical dependency on a substance is a physiological response. Addiction is characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, regardless of the knowledge of the harmful consequences. As such, it is a chronic disease that can be difficult to overcome without treatment.

On the other hand, physical dependence is the typical response to the chronic use of certain substances, such as prescription medications, alcohol, and others. It occurs when the body adapts to the presence of the substance by becoming increasingly tolerant of its effects. This increasing tolerance also necessarily comes with withdrawal symptoms, which may occur when someone who is physically dependent on a substance suddenly stops taking it.

Another difference is that addiction is a disease that affects the brain, while physical dependence is the body’s response to chronic substance use.

What is a More Practical Difference Between Addiction vs Dependence?

As dependence and addiction are often used interchangeably by many who write about substance abuse, there is a need to specify a more practical differentiation between the two.

The physical dependence on prescription medication could be defined as a preference or significant need to take the medication once the condition for which the medication is for manifests.

An example of this is a person who suffers from chronic pain. The body normally has a way of naturally mitigating pain. Pain is mainly the body’s way of informing the person something is wrong somewhere on or inside the body. Depending on whatever is causing the pain, the person should still be quite able to deal with the pain enough to do something about it.

There are those, however, who have a significantly lower pain threshold than others and are unable to handle, or would prefer not to deal with, any amount of pain. These are the people who form a dependence on painkillers, automatically taking them the moment they feel even a hint of pain coming in.

An addiction to painkillers, on the other hand, goes beyond the simple need to deal with the immediate pain being felt. Many painkillers contain substances known as opioids. Opioids are highly addictive because of what happens in the brain when it is taken.

Apart from helping a person deal with pain, opioids trigger the release of endorphins, which are neurotransmitters associated with sensations of euphoria. Euphoria typically makes a person feel exceptionally well and moderately relaxed.

The euphoria brought by opioids is mainly the reason why so many people are addicted to them. Not only is the pain effectively neutralized, at least for a time, but the person also gets the bonus of feeling remarkably well and extraordinarily relaxed. A person who has an addiction, therefore, takes painkillers with opioids mainly for the euphoria it gives, with the painkilling property only coming in as a secondary reason.

In most cases, people with an addiction will take opioids even if they don’t feel any pain at all since they are only in it for the euphoric feeling it gives.

The line between addiction vs physical dependence can be a bit blurry since both conditions involve using a substance even when it’s not necessary, but the key difference is that addiction is driven by the need to get high while dependence is simply the body’s need for the substance to function properly.

Another practical difference between dependence and addiction is the time frame involved in seeing the ultimate results of both conditions.

Both of these conditions involve the chronic use of substances that are typically regulated because they are dangerous substances, such as prescription medication, prohibited, such as heroin, or selectively regulated, such as alcohol.

The limitation in the use is mostly due to the dangerous effects these substances have on the body. Those who have a dependence and those who have an addiction to these substances will both feel these effects, although the difference would mostly be in how fast the onset would be. People who have a dependence tend to suffer from the effects much later than those that have an addiction as physical dependence usually requires a trigger. In those who have a painkiller dependence, the trigger is usually pain.

For those with an addiction, however, the effects tend to be felt sooner, as they typically take more of the substance to feed their need to feel the sensation brought on by the substance. This is why there are more overdose-related deaths attributed to addiction than to dependence.

How are Dependence and Addiction Similar?

Relevant to the use of substances, dependence, and addiction are similar in that both conditions typically lead to experiencing the adverse effects of chronic substance use, and potentially even death from significant damage done to the body from excessive use of the substance.

For those with a dependence, the adverse effects might take longer before they are experienced, but they are sure to come as they continue to use the substances that they have a dependence on.

People with an addiction tend to suffer from the adverse effects of the substance they use far sooner than those with a dependence. This happens because people with an addiction take the substance in greater quantity, and with more frequency. This speeds up whatever damaging effect the substance might have on the body, leading to an eventual overdose. The most recent statistics on drug-related overdose cases in the US reveal an alarmingly high number of overdose-related deaths in the past few years.

What are the Triggers That Bring About the Need to Use Substances?

Dependence-Related Triggers

People with a dependence often maintain a semblance of control over their use of substances because their use is dictated by a trigger they experience. Examples of this include people who experience chronic pain and only take painkillers when they feel its onset or people who suffer from sleep disruption and who only take sleeping aids when they are unable to get any sleep.

There are also “grey areas” in people who have a dependence, as is the case with people with a dependence on stimulants or performance enhancers. While most of these people only take stimulants or performance enhancers when they engage in the activity they need a boost in, there are also many who have integrated the use into many aspects of their life, such as when they are in social gatherings. This is highlighted because a social gathering could hardly be considered a trigger, even if the person with a stimulant dependence considers it as such.

Addiction-Related Triggers

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For those who take substances due to an addiction, the triggers are more complex in nature. Due to the fact that addiction is largely considered to be a mental disorder, many of the triggers these people experience are often psychological or behavioral.

Perhaps one of the most common triggers associated with substance abuse is trauma. This is particularly true with people who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This is the kind of trauma that deeply affects people to the point that it affects their behavior and perception in many aspects of life. Many people exhibit violent tendencies when they experience a trigger associated with PTSD. This is mostly seen in people who have seen combat or have been in similar conflicts.

An alarming number of combat veterans are known to suffer from both PTSD and one form of addiction or another, usually to alcohol. The trauma of being in conflicts that resulted in numerous deaths or horrific injuries severely profoundly affected veterans to the point that they experience vivid flashbacks or hallucinations of their experience. From there, the only way they could deal with it is by getting inebriated or drugged to the point of unconsciousness.

Many who suffer from anxiety confess that they are often overcome with either paralyzing fear or inability to do an action because of their anxiety. Or an overwhelming urge to do something brought on also by anxiety. Most of these people admit that they understand how illogical their anxieties or fears are, but they are unable to do anything about it.

Many others take to using substances that dull their senses and their ability to perceive the triggers that bring about their anxieties, which usually come in the form of alcohol or heavy sedatives that alter their mental state. Most of these substances, however, are central nervous system sedatives, meaning they directly affect the brain and the nervous system to bring about heavy sedation. Substances that directly affect the central nervous system are known to be highly dangerous because some of the adverse effects could become permanent.

Casco Bay Can Help with Substance Dependencies or Addiction

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The best result to come out of substance abuse treatment is freedom. Many struggles with the burden of being dependent on substances that they feel they cannot live without. Others suffer from the debilitating effects of addiction. Both of these conditions severely limit the quality of a person’s life. We here at Casco Bay know this more than anyone else, which is why we dedicate all our efforts to helping people regain their freedom from substance dependency and addiction.

It is never too late to be free once more. Contact us today and let us help you get back the life you deserve.