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addiction and dependence

What is the Difference Between Addiction and Dependence?

Substances like drugs and alcohol are pervasive in society, with an unfortunate number of people becoming dependent and addicted all the time. While dependence and addiction share some traits, they are different and shouldn’t be used interchangeably.

Both are difficult to deal with and can have negative effects on your life. The good news is that neither is beyond help – there’s always hope for recovery. If you’re worried about yourself or a loved one, it’s smart to know the difference. Read on to learn more about the difference between addiction and dependence.

Dependence Vs. Addiction: Knowing the Difference

Understanding the difference between these two is crucial for recovery. Identifying if someone is struggling with addiction or dependence helps them get the right treatment.

Physical Dependence

Firstly, dependence on a substance like drugs or alcohol is largely a physical thing. Whether it’s alcohol or one of the many drugs available, each substance offers something to the user. This can be one or more of many things:

  • A feeling of happiness, joy, euphoria, etc, when experiencing a “high”
  • Increased energy, focus, and motivation
  • A feeling of physical pleasure, relaxation, etc
  • An emotional release or escape from troubling thought patterns and/or life circumstances
  • Relief from physical pain and/or symptoms of mental illness
  • And more

It’s these feelings and effects that often draw someone into using. Some drugs, such as certain opioids, may be prescribed for a legitimate reason. For many, this isn’t a problem at first, but some people are more susceptible to dependence and addiction than others.

Whether prescribed and legal or not, dependence often takes hold after about six months of consistent use, give or take. This can differ depending on the person, how much they use, and how frequently.

By using a substance frequently, your body becomes accustomed to it and starts to crave and even need it to function properly. This means that if you stop using it regularly, you’ll experience withdrawal symptoms.

Withdrawal symptoms can vary in severity, but it’s never fun or pleasant. What you experience depends on the substance you’re dependent on. They can range from mild nausea and headaches to more harmful things like hallucinations and seizures. So, even if you’re not addicted, being dependent on a substance can still be dangerous and require medical intervention.

There are two main ways you can determine if dependence on a substance is starting to kick in:

  • Tolerance is increasing. Over time, you’ll need more and more of a substance to achieve the desired effects. An increased tolerance often leads to higher usage and a greater chance of dependence.
  • If you experience even mild withdrawal symptoms after not using the substance for a time, you’re already becoming dependent.


Addiction, also known as substance abuse disorder (SUD) is a condition that goes beyond physical dependence and affects the mind. It’s a disease just like any other, and one that can affect anyone at all.

Addiction happens when the brain starts changing its behaviour in response to substance use and abuse. The brain’s “reward system” is what’s most affected. When you use a substance often and frequently enough, your brain starts associating that thing with all of the positive effects and overwhelming release of dopamine.

Because these effects can’t be easily achieved in other, healthier ways, you’ll begin to crave and desire the substance in overwhelming ways. You quickly begin to prioritize the substance above most or all other things in your life. This is when things take a turn and your life and health are affected in major ways.

substance abuse disorder

How to Spot an Addiction

There are many ways you can spot an addiction, in both yourself and others. The earlier it’s caught and treated the better, but there’s always hope even for late-stage addictions.

  • Constantly thinking about the substance and how to get it
  • Being unable to stop using it, even after multiple earnest attempts
  • Increased tolerance
  • Using the substance despite the constant negative consequences
  • Hiding the use from loved ones and/or lying about it
  • Stealing money or otherwise engaging in risky acts to obtain the substance
  • Isolating yourself from family and friends, perhaps instead spending time with others who enable the substance abuse
  • A decline in personal hygiene and self-care, weight loss or gain, lack of sleep

These things are usually a good indication of addiction and should be addressed. If you’re interested in seeking help for yourself, we do offer self-referrals here at Lily Recovery. This means you can check yourself in on your own.

However, helping someone else can be tricky if they don’t want help. The best thing you can do is be there for them without judging but also without enabling their habits and addiction. Researching local resources and facilities such as ours is a good idea too. This way you’re prepared with information whenever they do reach out.

Addiction Vs. Dependence: Does One Come Before the Other?

It may seem logical that dependence and increased tolerance are a precursor to addiction. In some cases, this is true. However, it depends on the individual and their personality, substance abuse history, the substance itself, and even genetics.

The fact is, one can be addicted to a substance without being physically dependent. This is because addiction is a disease of the mind, whereas dependence is a physical thing. That being said, both can have devastating consequences for your physical and mental health, your social life, your family, and even your career.

physical and mental health

Seeking Help and Support

Understanding the difference between addiction and dependence is important for many reasons. It can help you know exactly what’s going on with yourself or a loved one, and it can help you determine the best course of action and treatment.

We offer a tranquil, private place for women of all ages and circumstances to heal and recover from whatever level of substance abuse they’re struggling with. If you have any questions or concerns, please don’t hesitate to reach out. Our compassionate and knowledgeable staff will provide you with the guidance you need.