The short answer – no, addiction is not the same as dependence.

The long answer – well, they are actually two quite complex, yet related terms that help characterize substance abuse. While they are similar, there are slight differences between the two, and that is what we will focus on.

At the end of this article, you will have a clear idea of these categories of substance use.

What is addiction?

Addiction is a chronic disease characterized by the uncontrolled and compulsive use of a substance and the inability to stop engaging in a particular practice despite potentially harmful physical and mental consequences.

Addiction is marked by a change in the behavior of the addicted fellow caused by the various changes in the brain after continued substance abuse. It is quite easy to tell an addicted person by just looking – they don’t care in the slightest what the addiction does to their physical and mental health. It’s usually far sadder to see than we can describe.

There are many signs and symptoms that accompany addiction, namely withdrawal to one’s self, depression, financial instability, uncharacteristically poor grades and scores, etc.

What is dependence?

Dependence is a condition characterized by the symptoms of tolerance and withdrawal. It is actually quite related to addiction and usually forgivable today to use them synonymously. However, they are different, as you will soon find out.

One area they share in common is that they both usually involve substance abuse, and dependence may lead to addiction. However, note that it is also possible to get dependent or addicted to a non-psychoactive substance.

Dependence usually involves a physical and psychological loss of control. There are two main parts of dependence – mental and physical. Mental dependence is simply using substances in response to a particular event or feeling, known as triggers. Other triggers include anxiety, nervousness, stomach tightness, etc. On the other hand, physical dependence is a condition in which a person takes a drug over time, and unpalatable physical symptoms accompany abrupt stoppage of the drug.

What is the difference between addiction and dependence?

So, what is the difference between the two? The primary difference between dependence and addiction is that addiction is the uncontrollable need for the substance in question, while dependence is growing attachment or tolerance to a substance. Addiction is classified medically as a disease, a chronic one, while dependence is a state of benign physically or psychologically dependent on a substance.

It is difficult to tell the two apart, but consider addiction as a broader scope and dependence a route to getting to addiction. When someone becomes physically or psychologically dependent on a substance, the chances that they will become addicted are high. While it is common to experience the two simultaneously, it is also a strong possibility to only experience one at a time. This means you can be physically dependent on a drug, not even a substance of abuse now, and not addicted to it. In the same vein, you can be addicted to a drug and not physically dependent on it.

Addiction and dependence are both subsets of the larger and wider topic that is substance use.

How to know which term to use?

Well, you may have noticed that it is quite difficult to know the difference between addiction and dependence. You know it’s difficult when even the professionals need help telling them apart. Because of this, the American Psychological Association has ditched both terms in favor of the far more inclusive – substance use disorder.

Medically, addiction is now referred to as substance use disorder. The term dependence is fast losing relevance in academic and professional literature because of the ambiguity and confusion that surrounds its definition.

Substance use disorder can be mild, moderate, or severe. None of these groupings is related to dependence. So, anytime you’re confused about which terms to use, go for substance use disorder.

Bottom line

At the end of the day, both addiction and dependence are conditions that need medical and professional attention. While the mode of treatment may be different for the two, they have a common goal of getting the individual in question off the substance in use.

Because of the confusion and ambiguity in both terms, it has been recommended that substance use disorder be used as an overriding term.

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