Addiction vs Dependence: Understanding the Difference

Drug dependence versus addiction: what is the difference? The short answer is that dependence is primarily about tolerance and withdrawal symptoms, while addiction is a behavioral disorder. Nonetheless, they are related closely enough — and often, defined poorly enough — that people tend to be confused about drug dependence versus drug addiction, resulting in potentially inaccurate interpretations of their health. For instance, drug dependence can turn into addiction quite quickly, and the transition usually involves a denial phase in which the drug user downplays the severity of the problem. This kind of thinking is dangerous to ignore and must be addressed as early as possible to prevent further physical, emotional, and mental damage from drug use. 


If you or someone you know struggles with drug dependency or drug addiction, we have the answers you need. By calling 912-214-3867, you will be connected to addiction professionals who can help locate the rehab facility that fits your needs. Do not wait until the last minute, as some damage is irreparable once caused. Call our addiction specialists to get started today.

Dependence Versus Addiction

Dependence can occur whenever someone takes a drug over an extended period. It can occur with prescription medication, illicit substances, or anything in between. Even if you take prescription medication as prescribed, physical dependence is a risk.

Dependence is mainly physical. 

Thus, the definition of dependence focuses on the body’s need for a substance. For instance, there are many chronic conditions that require medication, but over time, the body can adapt to the medication and require a higher dose to achieve the same effect. Furthermore, stopping the medication abruptly will have unpleasant and possibly dangerous consequences for the body. These are the defining factors of substance dependence.


This illustrates the answer to a commonly asked question: is dependence the same thing as addiction? No. Physical dependency on a drug is an effect of long-term use and does not necessarily indicate a drug addiction. The issue is complex, however, because while physical dependency doesn’t indicate addiction, an addicted person can and often will show all the signs of physical dependence. Therefore, we are reminded not to judge a book by its cover, as there might be unknown factors at work.


To answer why everyone seems so misguided on the subject, we look to the professionals at the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) board. We can thank them for all of the confusion, but we will get to that soon. If you need help with battling your addiction then call our experts today. We will be able to help you start living your best life.



Drug addiction is more of a mental dependency than a physical one. Like drug dependence, it is the result of extended drug use, illicit or otherwise; unlike dependence, addiction includes an inability to stop using regardless of the consequences. This problem stems from the ability of certain drugs to completely hijack the brain’s reward system with repeated use.


Effectively, repeated recreational drug use reconfigures the brain to demand stimulation of the reward center as often as possible. The desired effect is a heightened level of dopamine, which is a naturally occurring brain chemical responsible for our feelings of happiness. Excessive drug use will repeatedly activate dopamine receptors, making ordinary sources of pleasure seem dull by comparison, and ultimately training the user to prioritize the drug above all else. The mind controls the body. If the mind has become thwarted of its natural functions and taken over by external chemicals, it requires medical attention, not judgment or punishment.


Addiction versus dependence can be a frustrating determination process, as it relies on the patient’s level of honesty and proactivity in seeking help. People who self-diagnose are frequently incorrect and suffer needlessly while potentially worsening their health. If you or someone you know is suffering from drug dependence, drug addiction, or both, call our addiction specialists today. We have all the treatment resources you need including information on plans, facilities, and insurance options.


Where the Confusion Started


The DSM committee is currently on its fifth edition of the original definitions manual. This committee is responsible for providing accurate descriptions of mental health disorders that many medical experts refer to when diagnosing patients. The DSM-III was the active edition in the 1980s when a group of professionals met to determine, among other things, what was meant by “addiction” versus “dependence.” They ended up choosing the word “dependence” as an overarching term for addictive disorders, as the majority of members felt “addiction” had too many negative connotations. Though we understand the committee members did not want to cast shame on an individual by using poor verbiage, this decision led to a lot of confusion regarding patient diagnoses and understanding of mental health.


To make matters worse, the definition of “dependence” before DSM-III was simply “physiological dependence, as indicated by tolerance and withdrawal symptoms.”


This definition is not bad per se, but it’s hardly complete, and as a way of understanding addiction it’s woefully oversimplified. Imagine how many people were misunderstood based on that definition. Misrepresentation of mental health disorders contributes to the lack of empathy and compassion toward sufferers, and it doesn’t get a lot worse than reducing the plight of addicts to “tolerance and withdrawal symptoms.”



Thankfully, the DSM has since progressed to its fifth edition, which addresses the intricacies of psychological evolution in mental health education. In the DSM-V edition, a category entitled “substance dependence” was removed. The removal of this category paved the way for experts to expand the definition of “dependence.”


The edition now states:

Dependence means physical or physiological dependence, as indicated by tolerance and withdrawal symptoms. It is a state of neuroadaptation that can occur after repeated substance use, whereby continued substance use is needed to prevent withdrawal symptoms. Dependence does not equal addiction, though it can be one feature of addiction.”


Though this is a better understanding of what it means to be dependent on a substance, some professionals continue to work from older definitions, and the word “addiction” is still debatable. Even now, the committee is still deciding whether to officially define “addiction” based on a disease model, a learning model, or something else entirely. However, for the time being, an addiction diagnosis falls under the category entitled “substance use disorder.” 


This has not cleared much of the confusion, as it turns out: the American Psychiatric Association (APA) are the creators of the DSM and all of its editions, and even they often treat “substance use disorder” and “addiction” as synonyms. Not only does this add to the confusion, but it can lead to misrepresentation of a patient’s actual diagnosis and treatment. If you need help with a substance abuse disorder, then call us today. Our specialists will be able to help guide you to the right treatment path for you. 

Symptoms and Stages of Addiction Versus Dependence


As mentioned, addiction versus dependence is not correctly interchangeable. The difference between dependence and addiction, in practical terms, comes down to a person’s behavior. For instance, a person can be said to be addicted if they display drug-seeking behavior regardless of consequences, but this may or may not come with the tolerance and withdrawal that define dependency. Let’s take a closer look at symptoms of dependence.

Withdrawal symptoms result from the body being denied the drugs previously used and are usually terribly unpleasant. These reactions manifest physiologically but can also affect a person’s mental state. They include:

  • Depression
  • Muscle fatigue
  • Vivid dreams
  • Nausea
  • Anxiety
  • Vomiting
  • Bodily aches and pains


The Jellinek Curve is a template used by medical professionals to track and monitor general drug use stages from occasional use to requiring rehabilitation. The stages are as follows:

  1. You use drugs for recreation, taking them infrequently, and in social settings.
  2. You start using drugs regularly, often abandoning family and friends in favor of drug use. Losing access to drugs becomes a consistent worry.
  3. You become addicted to drugs as you become more tolerant of their effects and preoccupied with getting them. This may lead to abandoning most or all your previous interests and relationships.
  4. You become dependent on drugs and unable to live without them. Your physical and mental health deteriorates.


This tool provides better accuracy and efficiency in both diagnoses and treatment plans. Since even the APA professionals are unsure of the correct definition of the term “addiction,” it is the safest practice to consult with an addiction specialist, who can then guide you to a rehab center capable of determining the best treatment course. Self-diagnosis or self-treatment is never a good idea.

Dependency into Addiction

Drug dependence, we have said, can transform into a drug addiction very quickly. With an unclear interpretation of dependence versus addiction, the transition can be challenging to identify. Studying the patient’s behavioral changes for signs of physical dependence versus mental reliance is the best we have to go on.


When a person with a substance use disorder starts to become addicted, the behavioral symptoms will become more intense. The user will begin to disregard social responsibilities, family obligations, and even their jobs to do drugs instead. Frequency of use increases and irritability may turn into open aggression. The affected person will start to get in trouble more often. Problems may begin at work or home but often lead to encounters with law enforcement. This, for a person who normally stays out of trouble, is a huge red flag that can indicate a worsening drug problem.



Dependence versus addiction, addiction versus dependence; the discussion goes around and around among professionals and laypeople alike. Hopefully, we have arrived at a better understanding of the controversy if not the terms themselves. Regardless, enlisting the help of experts is the best way to get a handle on your problem. Our addiction specialists are standing by at the number below to answer questions, provide information about rehab centers, provide education on drug addiction, and get you the help you need.

Moving Forward

Signs of addiction or drug dependence are dangerous to ignore and must be addressed as early as possible to prevent further physical, emotional, and mental damage from drug use. If left unchecked, drug dependence can quickly transition into a drug addiction, which can worsen rapidly depending on the drug used. People often don’t know the difference between dependency and addiction and do not seek treatment when they should.


If you or someone you know is experiencing withdrawal symptoms, changes in behavior from drug use, or their drug use intensify without medical recommendation, call an addiction specialist today. Do not wait until the problem becomes too severe; call today to begin treatment as soon as possible. You can do this, and we can help you.


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