There’s an ongoing misconception that addiction and dependence are one and the same. But while they’re undoubtedly connected, an addiction involves a psychological drive to continue using a substance despite the harmful consequences, while dependence is a purely physical phenomenon.
Addiction Versus Dependence
Let’s take the consumption of coffee as an example. People may joke about being addicted to caffeine, but caffeine does not cause addiction. However, consuming caffeine can lead to tolerance and dependence. Drink enough caffeine, and the body will build a tolerance to it so that more is required to achieve the same effect. Tolerance can turn into dependence, meaning that the body will become so used to caffeine that if a person stops drinking it suddenly, they will experience withdrawal effects (tiredness, headaches, irritability, etc.).
And while a person may feel a psychological reliance on caffeine, caffeine does not cause the level of cravings that alcohol, illicit drugs, and some prescription drugs do. Someone addicted to alcohol or heroin, for example, is often physically and emotionally miserable but cannot stop using the substance despite its serious consequences.
Another case of dependence being present without addiction is with certain medications like antidepressants. Antidepressants are designed to create dependence so that the brain becomes used to having a correct chemical balance to alleviate depression and anxiety. The body is dependent on antidepressants but not addicted to them. No one takes antidepressants because of psychological cravings, and it’s possible to taper off antidepressants without experiencing significant withdrawal effects.
When it comes to addictive drugs or alcohol, the physical dependence is much more severe, such that ceasing to take the substance will cause significant physical pain that can continue in various intensities over a long period of time. Addiction is present when people feel a psychological craving to take the drug despite how terribly it disrupts their lives and harms their health.
Someone with this level of dependence and addiction requires medical detox to safely rid the body of the substances and stabilize it. Detox alone is not enough, however. Addiction is a chronic illness, and sustained wellness requires vigilance and support. Full treatment for addiction includes detox followed by long-term therapy and community support.
The ‘Help’ Just Hurts
Substance use is often triggered by a need to cope with trauma, stress, or social pressure.
This is a logical response of the brain: to quickly ease pain in order to continue working, living, and existing. But the quick fix of substances can all too easily lead to physical, emotional, and mental pain that makes the original problem much worse. Substance use becomes an addiction in some people depending on various risk factors: genetics, mental health disorders, high-stress jobs or homes, and a history of trauma, among other factors.
The Willpower Myth
Can someone with an addiction (or substance use disorder, as it is diagnosed) recover on their own, using the force of willpower? It’s been confirmed time and time again that addiction is a biological, not a moral, issue. Addictions and dependencies cause physical changes in the brains, rewiring its circuits. Substance abuse quite literally takes a person over. It’s safe to say that the thousands of Americans suffering from addiction would be thrilled to simply choose sobriety over their dependencies.
We Can Help
At St. Gregory Recovery Center, we know that quitting substances is not so easy. Our mission is to help you assess your substance use and determine the best path to treatment. It is our belief that perseverance, upheld by honesty and teamwork, is stronger than the persistence of addiction, stronger than dependence, and stronger than the myths, prejudices, and misconceptions that exist around substance abuse. Don’t hesitate to reach out today!