hand chained to bottle: a visual metaphor for chemical dependency and addiction

Addiction impacts the life of your loved one in unexpected and potentially dangerous ways. When a loved one abuses drugs or alcohol for an extended period, they develop a dependency on the substance that can develop into an addiction. Recognizing the differences between a chemical dependence and an addiction helps identify the right treatment program to help a loved one move forward with a healthy lifestyle.

What is a Chemical Dependence?

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, dependence on a substance refers to the physical disturbances that occur when a loved one stops abusing drugs or alcohol. The body develops a dependence on the substance and craves the drug, but it does not necessarily result in a compulsion to abuse the substance.


The National Institute on Drug Abuse explains that dependence on a substance develops when you take the drug or alcohol for an extended period. It can develop accidentally when taking a medication, even when using the medicine with medical supervision. Essentially, “dependence” refers to the physical response and the way the body reacts when a loved one no longer takes the drug. Without the substance, your loved one does not feel comfortable and can experience withdrawal symptoms; however, they do not necessarily show signs of an actual addiction.

What is an Addiction?

Addiction differs from dependency because it moves beyond the physical aspects of the substance. According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, an addiction is a disease of the brain's reward system. Essentially, the brain changes from chronic substance use and abuse to the point of actively seeking out the drug and feeling compelled to take it.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse says that an addiction occurs when the user takes a substance despite harm and personal consequences. The user’s attempts to stop taking the drug ultimately fail due to the strong urge or compulsion that stems from the brain's chemical balances. The brain sends out a craving for the drug because the substance changes the reward centers and communication pathways over time.

An addiction means that a user consumes the drug or alcohol, even when it causes physical harm. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (2) says that the primary difference between an addiction and dependence on a substance is the urge or compulsion associated with the substance. Addiction moves beyond the physical symptoms while dependency stems solely from the physical aspects.

When to Seek Treatment

It’s time to consider a professional treatment program when your loved one shows signs of compulsive behaviors and refuses to stop abusing the substance even though it causes them harm to their health, personal relationships, and career goals. Overcoming addiction requires professional treatment due to the physical and mental complexities of the behaviors that develop.

addiction and depression

While a physical dependence does not always require long-term treatment, your loved one needs professional treatment to help manage the withdrawal symptoms. Some drugs, like alcohol, cause severe and even life-threatening withdrawal symptoms, so a medically supervised program helps reduce the risk and allows the user to avoid severe reactions.

Dependency does not always lead to an addiction, but both concerns require appropriate treatment and management to help prevent long-term consequences and health concerns. By understanding the differences between dependency and addiction, your loved one can begin addressing the situation in order to improve their lives.

  1. http://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/teaching-packets/neurobiology-drug-addiction/section-iii-action-heroin-morphine/8-definition-dependence
  2. http://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/principles-drug-addiction-treatment-research-based-guide-third-edition/frequently-asked-questions/there-difference-between-physical-dependence
  3. http://www.asam.org/for-the-public/definition-of-addiction
  4. http://www.easyread.drugabuse.gov/what-is-addiction.php

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