Dependence Vs. Addiction: Are They Really That Different?

Written by: Lindsey Blakley
Last Updated: Jun 18, 2023

It is finally time to explain the difference between addiction and dependence. Throughout history, the two terms have notoriously been used interchangeably. In reality, their definitions are noticeably different in a number of ways. 

The Difference Between Addiction and Dependence in a Nutshell

Addiction vs. Dependence can be explained in the following way. Addiction refers to a specific detrimental behavior while dependence refers to the physical symptoms that result from substance abuse. In other words, addiction is when a person’s behavior changes because of his/her repetitive substance use. An addict can behave irrationally when the substance to which they are addicted is not readily available. On the other hand, dependence is when the individual experiences withdrawal and/or tolerance symptoms to the drug. 

Avenues Recovery provides below more information on the two and the difference between being dependent and addicted. 

What is Addiction?

Addiction occurs after prolonged and repetitive usage of an addictive drug or substance. It induces a chemical change in the brain that makes the person crave the drug more and more. The chemical changes in the brain that lead to addiction are induced by triggers. Addiction triggers include specific settings, people, actions, or emotions that lead an individual to feel the need to use drugs. Addiction leads to a physical and mental dependence on the substance(s). The longer someone is addicted to a substance, the higher their tolerance and the greater the withdrawal symptoms. 

Drug addiction often causes a major toll on not only your health but your relationships, career goals, and ultimately your finances. However, once you are addicted to something, it becomes increasingly difficult to realize it on your own until you (most people) are near rock bottom. 

Because addiction alters the chemical balance in your brain, your entire perspective changes along with it. That’s why it’s difficult to realize you are addicted to something until a close friend or relative speaks up about the change they notice. More often than not, those closest to those struggling with addiction will realize the behavior first. They themselves aren’t addicted to the substance and can see the situation with a clear mind.  

Common Signs of Addiction

Some common signs of addiction are: 

  • Using the substance or substances on a regular basis
  • It is probably all you can think about throughout the day
  • You start to prioritize your drug use around your daily life
  • You look forward to the next time you get to use the substance
  • You only do things that involved using the drug
  • You use drugs to go to sleep or to wake up
  • You take or use the substance until you blackout
  • The only people you hang out with are people that use the substance too
  • You have a hard time fulfilling your obligations to family, work, and the community. 

Addiction affects more than just the person using the substance(s). It affects those closest to the person as well. It can even affect innocent civilians when that addiction leads to the person making the terrible decision to get behind the wheel of a vehicle while under the influence. 

What Is Dependence?

Dependence is a psychological habit or state of being rather than a behavior. As mentioned, addiction results from a chemical change in the brain. The difference between dependence and addiction is that dependence is not linked to neurological changes. On the contrary, dependence occurs when your body becomes used to feeling a certain way throughout the day. When you go a few days without the drug, you may experience symptoms of irritability or anxiety rather than the classic withdrawal symptoms from addiction. Your tolerance levels will generally rise, which will require you to intake larger amounts of the drug to experience its desired effects. 

When someone is dependent on a drug and begins to experience physical withdrawal symptoms as well as mental symptoms, he/she is showing signs of addiction. 

Common Signs of Dependence

Some common signs of drug dependence are: 

  • You use the drug enough that you now have to take more of it to feel the same effects
  • Whether you realize it or not, you experience changes in your normal behavior
  • Your weight begins to fluctuate
  • You sleep more often than usual or start to experience insomnia
  • You continue to use medication when you no longer need it or no longer have a prescription 
  • You stop attending events and hobbies you used to love
  • Your friend group dwindles or changes
  • Knowing you are low on your drugs makes you feel anxious

Addiction Vs. Dependence: Why Does it Matter to Know the Distinction?

Although the differences between addiction and dependence are not so large, there is enough to distinguish between drug dependence vs. addiction. It is true that in most cases of addiction, the person is also dependent on the drug and that most cases of dependency eventually lead to addiction. However, this isn’t always the case. They do not always coexist. 

For instance, it is possible for you to be addicted to a drug without feeling a physical dependence on it. It is also possible for someone to realize their dependency and to stop taking the drug before they become fully addicted to it. There is a difference between being dependent and addicted and it is important to take away the stigma. People who are no longer addicted to drugs yet are still receiving medication treatment for substance use disorder should not need to be labeled as addicted when their behavior towards drugs has changed so drastically. Misdiagnosis can have detrimental effects and therefore should be avoided as much as possible.

The Terminology Used by the DSM Today

In 1964, the World Health Organization [1] considered eliminating the word “addiction” and substituting it with “dependence.” The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) claims that “addiction” is not specific enough and it carries a negative connotation. Instead, the DSM-IV characterized addiction as “substance abuse” and “substance dependence.” The differentiation was that substance dependence is a more intense form of substance abuse and occurs at a later stage. The more a person abuses substances, the more likely he/she is to develop a dependence on them. 

In 2013, the terms “substance abuse” and “substance dependence” were replaced with the term, “substance use disorder.” Substance use disorder [2] can be classified as mild, moderate, or severe. The intention behind this terminology to describe addiction is because it includes both dependence and addiction under one umbrella while not ignoring the difference between dependence and addiction. 

Treatment Options for Dependence vs. Addiction

The good news is that you can reach out to drug treatment centers whether you are addicted or experiencing a dependency on a drug. It doesn’t matter. The staff is there to help those struggling regardless of the severity of the situation. 

Typically, the treatment is generally the same between addiction and dependency. Both require some form of slow detox with different levels of monitoring. Those struggling with drug dependence are more likely to go through outpatient treatment rather than inpatient. 

The terms often get used interchangeably, but there is a difference between addiction and dependence. 

When people identify the differences between dependence vs. addiction, they can get a clearer picture of what addiction and treatment for addiction entail. Regardless of the severity of the abuse, it is crucial that anyone struggling with addiction or dependence reach out to a trusted professional and get the help they deserve. There are other, healthier avenues to take to subside particular ailments in your life. You don’t have to result in recreational drug use. 

Recover from your Addiction or Dependence at Avenues Recovery

Although there are various differences between drug dependence vs. addiction, know that regardless of what category you fit in, Avenues Recovery is here for you. We offer a variety of treatment programs that are individualized to help you come out of your addiction. Take the first step and reach out today!

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Lindsey is a full-time copywriter, editor, and mother with a passion for all things related to mental wellness and personal growth. In her spare time, she likes to write short stories and e-books.

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