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Addiction vs Dependence - What is the difference?

Addiction vs Dependence – What is the difference?

According to the National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics, or NCDAS, currently, over 20 million Americans are categorized as having a substance abuse disorder of some kind. As shocking as that number may be, it means that substance dependency and addiction is a very real problem for many people. But substance abuse, whether in the form of addiction or dependence, can be treated and recovery is possible. When people struggle with drug or alcohol addiction or dependence, the view of their lives from the outside may look the same.

Substance abuse disorders can be a challenge to overcome, but many people don’t understand the differences between addiction and dependence. While overuse of prescribed medications, over-the-counter drugs, street drugs, or alcohol can cause a host of mental, emotional, and physical problems, a user may have an addiction or become dependent on the substance. Each situation is unique to the individual, but addictions and dependencies are specific types of substance abuse that call for specialized treatments. Let’s look at what you need to know about addiction vs dependence.

What is a Substance Dependence?

The body’s physical need for a substance is at the heart of understanding substance dependency. When a user begins to abuse a chemical substance or alcohol, they may not physically need to use it; the desire could initially stem from personal triggers to stress or anxiety, a real need for a medicine, or any other host of reasons why the substance is introduced and used repeatedly. This initial mental trigger is how substance dependence begins.

However, drug or alcohol use becomes a substance dependence through an increasing adaptation of the body to the substance, also called tolerance. Dependence becomes the need to continue to use or use larger quantities of, the drug or alcohol to reach the same effect, raising the user’s tolerance to higher and higher levels. When a greater tolerance is reached, even more of the substance is needed, creating an ever-increasing physical need to consume the substance.

What is a Substance Addiction?

Simply put, an addiction is the inability to control the impulse to use a substance regardless of the awareness of the possible consequences of doing so. Many substance users start with the idea that they can put down the drink or drug at any time, and for some, this may be the case. However, long-term substance use has one element that many users do not anticipate, the brain changes that result from it. It is no secret that chemicals initially affect our bodies, but the repeated use of medicine, over-the-counter (OTC) drugs, or harder drugs can have a potentially lasting effect on our brains as well.

Changes in the brain caused by drug or alcohol use stick around long after the addictive substance are stopped, so many addicts find that reaching or sticking to a state of abstinence is much more challenging than before. Substance addiction has a biological component that is not related to needing to physically consume the substance. Instead, this biochemical change in the brain makes it impossible for the addict to resist the abused substance even with the knowledge of how big a toll it may be taking on their life.

The Main Differences Between Addiction and Dependence

Even though the outward signs of addiction vs dependence may seem identical to the loved ones watching someone who is suffering from substance abuse, the motivation behind the actions is different. Since 70% of those who first use an illicit drug before the age of 13 will develop a substance abuse disorder, knowing the differences between addiction and dependence is crucial in reaching the best kind of care for you or someone in need.


  • may begin with a real need for a substance (prescription or OTC to treat an ailment)
  • may begin with a mental trigger leading to trying or abusing a substance
  • will transition into an increased level of tolerance of the substance
  • will become a physical need for the user who must take increasing amounts of the substance to feel relief or the same feelings from the lower amounts of the substance
  • will lead to withdrawal symptoms if a substance is suddenly stopped, reducing the likelihood of successfully stopping dependence without treatment
  • may lead to an addiction


  • may begin with a real need for a substance (prescription or OTC to treat an ailment)
  • may begin with a mental trigger leading to trying or abusing a substance
  • can lead to brain changes due to long-term substance abuse, making it impossible to quit the abuse without treatment
  • may be accompanied by a failure to meet work, personal, or social obligations as a result of abuse
  • may lead to a dependence

Do Treatment Programs Only Help Substance Addiction vs Dependence?

Every substance abuse situation may be different, but treatment programs can help improve the lives of those who suffer from substance addiction and substance dependence. While knowing what steps to take with any substance abuse situation is crucial, professionals are trained and qualified to assess a situation and provide a proper treatment plan. Recognizing that you or someone you love needs help, whether it is addiction or dependence, is the first step towards recovery.

Time for Action

If you or someone you know needs to take the first step towards recovery from substance addiction, contact the professionals at Enlightened Solutions Detox, a drug and alcohol addiction detox center. At Enlightened Solutions Detox, we can help support you or your loved one begin the healing process at our holistic drug treatment center. By holistically treating the whole person, we address the mind, body, and spirit through detoxification and recovery. Call or reach out to us today for more information about how the professionals at Enlightened Solutions Detox can support you on your journey to restored health.

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