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Dependence vs. Addiction: What’s the Difference?

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Differentiating between a physical dependence on a substance and an addiction helps determine the best way to handle a loved one’s substance abuse.

In some cases, a loved one does not actually abuse drugs or alcohol due to an addiction; instead, her body craves the substance or she abuses the drugs due to the physical reactions that occur when she does not use the substance. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (1) says that addiction and dependence have similarities, but they are also very different.

What is Dependence?

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica (2), physical dependence refers to the tolerance a loved one builds up while using a substance. Essentially, a loved one must use more of the drug or alcohol to get the same impact on the body. In many cases, a loved one also shows signs of withdrawal when she stops using the drug, which raises concerns about the possibility of an addiction.

Although a loved one faces withdrawal symptoms and tolerance for the substance, it does not always result in an actual addiction. The physical symptoms cause discomfort, but with a detox program and the help of professionals, a loved one has the ability to avoid drugs or alcohol in the future and will not continue using the substance when it causes harm to the physical body.

What is Addiction?

The American Society of Addiction Medicine (3) calls an addiction a chronic disease that impacts the reward center of the brain. It takes the physical aspects of dependence further by causing emotional and psychological dependence on the drug. It also changes the way that a loved one behaves.

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According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (4), the factor that sets addiction apart from dependence is the urge or the need to take the drug, even when a loved one attempts to avoid the substance. Essentially, the drug takes control over a loved one’s behavior and causes chronic drug-seeking behaviors that potentially cause harm to her life.

Addiction refers to a loved one’s inability to stop taking the drug, even when it causes harm, says the National Institute on Drug Abuse (1). A loved one continues taking the substance after it harms relationships, career opportunities or even physical and emotional health. A loved one finds it difficult to get through the day without taking the drug and starts engaging in inappropriate behaviors in an effort to obtain the substance.

Seeking Treatment

Substance abuse raises concerns about a loved one’s health, even if she does not show signs of an addiction. In many cases, a physical dependence develops into an addiction when a loved one does not remove the drug from her lifestyle.

Professional treatment provides a variety of benefits for a loved one’s recovery goals. The primary advantages include:

  • Identifying and treating the underlying causes of an addiction
  • Working on removing the drug from a loved one’s system
  • Learning different ways to avoid the substance and reduce cravings
  • Finding ways to improve personal behaviors

The best treatment plan for any individual depends on her situation. In general, you want to encourage treatment for any substance abuse, even if a loved one does not show signs of an addiction or drug-seeking behaviors.

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Addiction and dependence both impact a loved one’s health and wellness, so treating the underlying causes provide the opportunity to make positive changes. A treatment program allows a loved one to learn valuable coping strategies so that she avoids the drug and regains a healthy lifestyle.


  1. Is There a Difference Between Physical Dependence and Addiction?, The National Institute on Drug Abuse, December 2012,
  2. Physical Dependence, The Encyclopedia Britannica,
  3. Definition of Addiction, The American Society of Addiction Medicine, April 19, 2011,
  4. What is Addiction?, The National Institute on Drug Abuse,

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