The Fine Line Between Dependency and Addiction

Medication on Table

The Fine Line Between Dependency and Addiction

Dependency and addiction often get confused with one another, as they’re quite similar on the surface. However, understanding the difference can help you get the treatment you need and help you recover. While in some cases, these two terms are used interchangeably; others work to clearly define these two terms to help people understand their mental state and help them receive the treatment they need.

Defining the Difference Between Dependency and Addiction

For those who have problems with drugs or alcohol, dependency and addiction often indicate a severe attachment to a substance, causing cycles of symptoms and illness that can have life-long consequences if not treated. While illicit drugs and alcohol are often the most cited examples of addictive substances, other substances such as prescription medications can even lead to a state of dependency and even addiction in some cases. Even while prescription medications are meant to solve or remedy medical issues, there are also systemic problems with prescription medication that can easily lead to addiction, specifically in regard to narcotic medications such as opioids.

So, what’s the difference between dependency and addiction? Below, we’ll define those two terms and help expand on what each of them means in terms of mental health:

  • Dependency: Dependency implies that the body and brain are physically reliant on a certain substance, including prescription medications. While physical dependency can occur, it doesn’t often mean that it can result in addiction. To further define this term, physical dependency can be further delved into how the brain reacts when withdrawal occurs. With medications, the brain ultimately develops a tolerance and thus dependency on that medication, which in turn disrupts the brain’s chemical balance without the presence of the drug, but if avoided completed, may not become addicted to the substance.
  • Addiction: Addiction, on the other hand, refers to a person’s inability to stop using the substance and is often defined as an illness. Addiction to a substance usually starts with withdrawal symptoms once it stops being used, and during this stage, the person can put it down and move on if caught early. However, if the person experiences cycles of stopping and relapsing, the addiction can eventually take over, causing a reliance on the substance that, when stopped leads to symptoms of deniability, failure to complete daily tasks, and reoccurring social problems associated with their addiction.

A Short Summary of Substance Abuse and Mental Health

In short, while dependency refers to the brain’s physical reliance on a substance, addiction refers to abnormal patterns of substance use that, when going through withdrawal, causes significant distress and impairment to one’s ability to function and perform tasks. However, even these terms aren’t so clearly defined because dependency and addiction are unique to each person’s circumstances. Ultimately, it will be up to the doctor’s opinion, mental and physical health, and whether or not their relationship with the substance is physical or mental in the first place.

If you or someone you know is exhibiting symptoms of substance abuse, either through addiction or dependency, it’s important to contact a mental health professional or addiction recovery center to seek out answers and find alternative solutions.

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April is the founder of Prestige Mental Health and is a board certified psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner (PMHNP-BC) who is qualified to practice primary care and psychiatry. She is passionate about providing quality, compassionate, and comprehensive mental health services to children, adolescents, and adults. April specializes in psychiatric illnesses including but not limited to depression, anxiety, ADD/ADHD, PTSD/trauma, bipolar, and schizophrenia.