In the United States and around the world, substance abuse disorders are increasingly common. According to data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), almost 20 million American adults battled a substance use disorder in 2017. That year, roughly 74 percent of adults had an alcohol use disorder and about 38 percent of adults had an illicit drug use disorder.
In the mental health community, the terms ‘dependent’ and ‘addict’ are often used to describe someone who has developed a substance abuse disorder—but they aren’t exactly the same thing. For the average person, the difference between dependence and addiction can be difficult to understand. However, there are a few key differentiators that separate the two.
Dependence vs. Addiction: What’s the Difference?
Drug and alcohol abuse is always harmful, regardless of the label attached to it. But addiction and dependence are two very different distinctions, so what exactly is the difference?
People who are dependent on drugs or alcohol are dealing with a physical dependence on the substance. That means the person has built up a tolerance to the substance and would experience withdrawal symptoms if they stopped drinking or using drugs. Because of that, it’s possible for a person to be dependent on a substance, without necessarily being addicted to it. You can think of dependence as the first stage in addiction.
On the other hand, a person becomes addicted to a substance after their habits create changes in the brain which affect their behavior. Addiction usually happens after prolonged substance misuse. People who are addicted to drugs and alcohol have trouble functioning without substances and act irrationally when they don’t have access to their drug of choice.
Both dependence and addiction can severely affect a person’s ability to live a normal life. Addicts spend most of their time thinking about or using drugs, even if it causes harm to themselves or the people around them. People who are dependent on a substance may not have the same intense cravings, but they still feel like they need drugs or alcohol to feel their best or numb certain emotions.
Understanding Psychological vs. Physical Dependence
Dependence isn’t one-size-fits-all. People who become dependent on drugs or alcohol can be psychologically or physically dependent on substances. It’s also common for people to experience both types of dependence.
Psychological dependence is when someone uses drugs or alcohol in response to certain triggers, or stressful events. For some people, that could be as simple as going to the grocery store or seeing a certain person. When they are triggered, it creates changes in the brain that influence addictive behaviors.
Physical dependence develops when someone uses drugs or alcohol consistently over a long period of time. Eventually, the body becomes dependent on the substance which causes cells and other essential systems to start to function differently. When the person stops taking drugs and the substance leaves the body, withdrawal symptoms set in because the body has become used to the chemical presence. Experiencing withdrawal symptoms is often what fuels addiction.
Dependence and addiction are serious diseases that can be difficult to overcome without professional treatment. Jordan Peterson, a famed clinical psychologist, is a recent example of how dependence can be potentially lethal. After developing a severe addiction to benzodiazepines, Peterson had to be medically detoxed which involved being put into an induced coma for eight days. According to his family, Peterson nearly died several times during the detox process.
Getting Treatment for Dependence and Addiction
Whether someone is suffering from dependence or addiction, one thing remains the same—getting professional treatment is essential. Treatment for substance abuse disorders has come a long way, and most people who seek treatment make a full recovery.
When treating dependence and addiction, most mental health professionals recommend a combination of therapies. That includes talk therapy, lifestyle changes, self-care, and potentially medication. Prescribing medication can help recovering addicts manage symptoms of withdrawal, but it can also be risky for people who are already prone to addiction.
Regardless of the severity of the dependence or addiction, it’s never recommended to stop using drugs or alcohol cold turkey. In the case of Jordan Peterson, trying to quit all at once can be deadly for people suffering from severe, long-term addictions. This is especially true for people who need to medically detox in order to rid their body of built-up chemicals and toxins.
If a person does need to medically detox, they should find a detox center or rehab facility that specializes in those treatments. Medical detoxes are usually done in an inpatient or hospital settings, rather than in outpatient facilities. A clinician oversees medical detoxes and uses medications and other methods to help people safely go through the withdrawal process.
Once a person successfully detoxes from drugs or alcohol, they can enter an outpatient recovery program that focuses on psychotherapy, family therapy, self-care, and other forms of long term treatment. Getting treatment after detoxing also helps addicts learn how to manage life without abusing addictive substances, which can reduce the risk of relapse.
Treatment at Mission Harbor
At Mission Harbor, we treat young people and adults suffering from addiction in our outpatient center. Our staff is trained to treat a variety of different disorders, including addiction to alcohol, heroin, cocaine, opioids, and more. We also offer relapse prevention for addicts who have recovered and fallen back into their addictive habits.
Our programs are designed to help people get the treatment they need while maintaining their work or school routines. We offer convenient program schedules, as well as morning, afternoon, and evening programs. Every client is given a personalized treatment plan that includes specialized program tracks, and the option for both individual and group therapy.
If you or someone you love is suffering from addiction, contact us today to learn more about Mission Harbor in Santa Barbara.