Psychological Dependence vs Physical Dependence: Is there Really a Difference?

psychological dependenceBeing someone or being around someone who is an addict is no walk in the park.  Addictive behavior, whether it’s a result of drugs, alcohol, overeating, gambling, etc, ruins lives and families every day.  However, what about those behaviors that strongly resemble addiction but are centered around a psychological dependence? Or wait, is there even a difference?

Addiction to a specific substance or eating behavior results in physical changes and physical deterioration on and off the drug of choice.  So is psychological dependence a mental fixation without the physical after effects? What people are really referring to when they make this comparison is the distinction between physical withdrawal symptoms that are part of physiological dependence and the addictive process that occurs in the brain.  There’s no doubt that some substances, like alcohol and drugs leave long term users with horrible withdrawal symptoms that are terrible to watch, and even worse to go through.

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Both Terms Defined

  • Physical Dependence

Physical dependence on a substance is defined by the appearance of withdrawal symptoms when use of the substance is discontinued. Opiates (such as Heroin), benzodiazepines, barbiturates, alcohol and nicotine induce physical dependence.

The speed with which a person becomes addicted to a substance varies with the substance, the frequency of use, the method of use, the intensity of pleasure, and the individual’s genetic and psychological susceptibility. Some people may exhibit alcoholic tendencies from the moment of first intoxication, while most people can drink socially without ever becoming addicted. Heroin (or other opiate) dependent people have different responses to even low doses of heroin, although this may be due to a variety of other factors, as heroin use heavily stimulates pleasure-inducing areas in the brain. Nonetheless, because of these variations, in addition to a variety of studies that have been undertaken, much of the medical community is satisfied that addiction is in part linked to a person’s genetic makeup. That is, one’s genetic makeup may regulate how susceptible a person is to a substance and how easily one may become psychologically attached to a pleasurable routine.

  • Psychological Dependence

Psychological dependence is a dependency of the mind, and leads to psychological withdrawal symptoms (such as cravings, irritability, insomnia, depression, anorexia etc). Addiction can in theory be derived from any rewarding behavior, and is believed to be strongly associated with particular areas of the brain’s reward system (as in the case of cocaine).

A dependency of the mind involves a mental association with how a particular behavior is rewarded.  Compulsive overeating, for example, also can occur because of a “feel-good” association individuals have tied to eating.  Something in the brain has triggered a dependency to eating in order to “feel good” even though they might eat over capacity and physically feel awful.

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Combining the Two

While withdrawal from certain types of drugs, like marijuana, do not result in the stereotypical “opiate-withdrawal-flu-like-syndrome,” there is no doubt that real withdrawal from these substances exists for long term users and it sucks: Fatigue, depression, anxiety, sleep disturbances, and trouble eating are only some of the symptoms that tend to show up.  Withdrawal symptoms occur because the body is attempting to counteract the stoppage of drug ingestion. Just like tolerance builds as the body adjusts to chronic drug use, withdrawal occurs as the body reacts to its cessation.

As crystal meth increases the amount of dopamine present in the brain, the body reacts by producing less dopamine and getting rid of dopamine receptors. When a user stops putting meth in their body, the low production of dopamine must increase and additional receptors must be inserted. Like tolerance, the process of withdrawal, even past the initial, obvious, symptoms, is a long and complicated one. For crystal meth addicts, the initially low levels of dopamine results in almost a complete lack of pleasure in anything. There’s no mystery as to why: Dopamine is one of the major “pleasure” neurotransmitters. So once dopamine is out of the system, the pleasure is gone as well (source: psychologytoday.com).

Alternative Healing

Some of those individuals struggling with physical and psychological dependence experience both body and mental affects from the drug or behavior at issue.  Working on these types of dependency can be arduous and not successful all of the time.  Some have turned to alternative healing practices such as those found in Eastern Medicine. Udemy’s course, “Learn about Eastern Medicine and Energy Psychology” is taught by Jef Gazley, a renowned hypnotist, licensed in counseling and substance abuse, receiving his Bachelor’s in Psychology and History as well as a master’s in Counseling from the University of Oregon.

Meditation is another avenue people with addictions have turned to for help.  The practice of meditation has existed for thousands of years and has been used for healing purposes all around the world.  Allowing the mind to rest while in meditation can be a useful tool to carry out in everyday life when cravings or addictions rise to the surface.  Of course when dealing with physical symptoms, the pain in the body during withdrawal will very likely be awful but meditation can help with that as well.

Psychological & Physical Dependence

If you’re facing addiction in your life in some way, shape or form, it is not easy and often produces feelings of isolation which in turn fuels the cycle.  If you feel like you are alone, you are wrong.  There are extensive addiction-based support groups in almost every major city and a large number of small towns, free of cost, that can help recover and stay sober while connecting you with other individuals experiencing the same fight you are.