Dependence vs. Addiction: Is There a Difference?

A woman sits on a couch with her knees pulled into her chest. She looks pensively out the window.

The words “addiction” and “dependence” are often used interchangeably, but it’s important to understand they have very different meanings for people who struggle with drugs and alcohol. It’s also important to understand those differences so you can get the right kind of treatment for your condition.

What is addiction?

The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) defines addiction as a treatable, chronic disease that affects the brain’s reward, motivation, and memory functions. Someone with an addiction will crave a substance and often ignore other areas of life to satisfy their craving, regardless of the harm it may cause to themselves or others. Symptoms of addiction include:

  • An inability to stop using drugs or alcohol (despite health problems)
  • Lack of interest in hobbies or activities they once enjoyed
  • Antisocial behavior
  • Sleeplessness and insomnia

What is dependence?

The word “dependence” usually refers to a physical dependence on a substance and is characterized by the symptoms of tolerance (how much you can drink) and withdrawal (when you stop drinking). While it’s possible to have a physical dependence without an addiction, addiction is usually just around the corner. Symptoms of dependence include:

  • Planning social, family, and work events around alcohol or drug use
  • Having a compulsive need to drink alcohol or use drugs in excess
  • Needing to drink in the morning
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms like sweating, shaking, and nausea

What is the difference between dependence vs. addiction?

Someone dependent on drugs or alcohol has a physical dependence on the substance, which means they have built up a tolerance to the substance and would experience symptoms of withdrawal if they stopped using the substance. An easy way to think about dependence is the first stage of addiction.

A person becomes addicted to drugs or alcohol after their repeated or prolonged habits create structural changes in the brain that affect their behavior. People who have a drug or alcohol addiction have trouble functioning without substances and often act irrationally when they do not have access to their substance of choice.

Treatment options for dependence and addiction

Whether you or someone you love is struggling from dependence or addiction, getting professional treatment is essential. When treating substance use disorders, Miramar Recovery Center recommends a medically assisted detox program followed treatments such as:

  • Talk therapy
    This can include individual, group, or family therapy sessions. It provides a safe place to work through challenges so you can heal and feel whole again.
  • Lifestyle changes
    Overcoming addiction is difficult, but it’s important to learn new behaviors and coping mechanisms so you can live a long, healthy, and sober life.
  • Self-care
    An often overlooked aspect of healing is the spirit. At Miramar Recovery Center, we offer a specialized therapy option of connecting with a higher power during the healing process.
  • Medication
    Several medications can be used to ease symptoms of withdrawal and prevent complications.

Our addiction and alcohol detox programs can help you safely and effectively remove the substance from your body. We do not recommend detoxing from drugs or alcohol on your own, as withdrawal symptoms can be severe, sometimes dangerous, and include complications like acute alcohol withdrawal syndrome, delirium tremens, seizures, and psychiatric issues that can lead to erratic and dangerous behaviors.

Miramar Recovery Center offers safe, effective treatment for substance abuse. Call 949-691-5036 to learn more about our treatment services.


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