Many people use the terms chemical dependence and addiction interchangeably. While the two can be related, important differences distinguish them from each other.
Dependence can be demonstrated by the occurrence of side effects when a person stops taking a medication, drinking alcohol, or using illicit drugs. It is important to understand that dependence can occur even when a person is only using medication provided by a doctor and only as prescribed.
For example, certain mood stabilizers will produce withdrawal symptoms if the person taking them misses a dose. That person is physically dependent on the medication, even if they are not abusing it in any way. Anyone who has gotten a headache from lack of caffeine has also experienced a side effect that results from physical dependence on the substance.
Avoiding Withdrawal Side Effects
Whether a person is changing medications, giving up coffee, or trying to stop using an illicit substance, tapering off gradually may reduce the side effects. In the case of illicit substances and alcohol, certain medications can be utilized to help with the withdrawal process. This is referred to as medication-assisted treatment (MAT).
Dependence Versus Addiction
Overcoming a dependence simply requires a person to stop using that substance. This process may involve some discomfort and time but is less involved than treating an addiction. Addiction is far more complex than dependence, though dependence is present whenever a person is addicted to a substance. Addiction is a chronic brain disease with a variety of underlying causes:
- Life experiences, including trauma
- Brain wiring
- Social environment
While a person who is dependent on a substance can still continue to function normally while using that substance, a person who is addicted to a substance typically loses the ability to fulfill job, family and other duties. They are also unable to stop using the drug when they want to do so. Additionally, a person who is addicted to a substance may build up a tolerance to it, meaning that they must use a higher and higher dose to achieve the same results.
When is it Time to Seek Help?
Dependence alone isn’t necessarily an issue, but when the following signs appear, the person is entering addiction, and it is time to reach out to a doctor or treatment program for support:
- They may have originally been prescribed medication for a legitimate medical concern, but they are continuing to take the med even after the condition has been resolved.
- The person is suddenly neglecting work, personal, or family responsibilities.
- Their behavior has changed in unpleasant ways. They may be irritable or dishonest or engage in theft to get money for their habit.
- They are isolating themselves from loved ones and possibly spending time with other people who use with them.
- Their primary concern seems to be getting the substance.
Harmful consequences don’t keep the person from using the drug.
- Their physical appearance has changed. They look unkempt and tired; their weight substantially changes; their eyes are bloodshot; or they have tremors.
Additional signs of addiction are unique to different types of drugs that a person may be abusing. For example, a person who abuses stimulants may be wired and jittery, while a person who abuses opiates may nod off during conversations. Though it is not necessary to know what drug a person is abusing in order to get them help, it may be beneficial to know your loved one’s drug of choice in order to recognize signs of relapse.
How to Get Help for Addiction
If you or someone you care about is struggling with addiction, there are several different ways to get help. You may start by reaching out to your primary care doctor, especially if the addiction involves medication. You may also want to stage an intervention with the person’s family and friends to convince them that they need to go to treatment.
If you have questions about dependence, addiction or treatment, Safe Harbor Recovery Center in Portsmouth, VA, has a friendly team of professionals who can help. Our admissions team can listen to your concerns and help you determine the next best step.
We also welcome family and friends who want to learn more about how they can support their loved one in their recovery journey.