Physical Addiction vs. Emotional Addiction

When someone experiences physical trauma, the body sends signals through the nervous system that create the feeling of pain. This pain creates an emotional response within our psyche, as part of our nociception.

One of the most fundamental questions in ethics is how to determine if a non-human species feels pain. Typically, we use the concept of an analogous response to determine whether pain exists in other species. For example, a dog will whimper and pull away when injured – this is similar in most mammals and vertebrates, which react to noxious stimuli by making a conscious decision to pull away from it, and if capable, they cry out.

It becomes more complicated in invertebrates. Research suggests that even the simplest of bugs and mollusks possess opioid mechanisms and react differently to noxious stimuli while under the influence of morphine. However, how the body reacts and how the mind perceives are two different things. Some people have far higher pain tolerances than others – some people are genetically incapable of feeling pain. Most people react mildly to the prick of a pin, while some feel it to a greater degree, and cry out. It is impossible to gauge how genuine such a reaction is because there are no exact analogies for how pain feels between people because we all only know how it feels to ourselves. This is like the philosophy of color perception, insofar that our idea of what the color “yellow” may represent could be wildly different from how it looks to others.

Addiction works on the same premise, in a way: the brain reacts to an addictive substance in much the same way across the board, except for people who are genetically resistant to the effects of certain drugs – much like how some people cannot perceive pain. Similarly, the system of withdrawal and tolerance is inevitable over a certain period of drug use.

However, the phenomenon of addiction itself is not necessarily tied to withdrawal. You can be addicted to a drug within the first few hits, or you can take it for a decade and never truly be addicted. It depends from person to person, and understanding this relationship between physical addiction and emotional addiction is important to further understand why addiction is a topic that requires so much individual focus, and why generalizations and stigma are so harmful to the development of a better understanding and relationship between addicts and non-addicts.


What is Physical Addiction?

Most addictive drugs form a physical addiction by manipulating the brain’s natural reward system – opiates, for example, bind to the brain cell’s opiate receptors and stimulate feelings of euphoria while killing the pain. Cocaine, on the other hand, blocks dopamine receptors, causing the amount of dopamine in your neurons to drastically increase, hence vastly improving mood and motivation. Stimulants like amphetamines both release dopamine and norepinephrine, a component of the fight-or-flight system.

Neurotransmitters play a key role in regulating the body and mind. Neurotransmitters affect our heart rate, digestion and breathing just as much as they affect our mood and emotions. Typically, neurotransmitters like dopamine are released in response to positive stimuli like sex, exercise, or food. However, with a physical addiction to drugs, the brain’s cells are flooded with positive signals, creating an overwhelming high.

Over time with physical addiction, this high begins to lessen in intensity as the body becomes more adept at metabolizing the drug. This is what is called drug tolerance. Related to this is withdrawal from a physical addiction, a set of symptoms that develop when drug use is stopped after regularly taking a drug. Typically, substance use disorders (or drug dependence) include the system of tolerance and withdrawal as symptoms of the physical addiction. However, not all cases of dependence rely on physical addiction withdrawal symptoms as proof of their legitimacy.


What is Emotional Addiction?

Emotional addiction is much more subjective, and harder to observe through brain scans. Much like pain, the intensity and speed at which we develop an emotional addiction are not under our control, and neither is it the same across the board. People develop an emotional addiction differently – even between two examples exposed to the same drug at a similar time, with similar risk factors, the exact perception of the drug and the relationships that are formed between the user and their substance can be wildly different. An obsessive, compulsive habit can still be an addiction, even without the presence of withdrawal symptoms.

Withdrawal will always occur after enough use – this is the same for everyone. But an addiction is not guaranteed. If you drink three or four cups of coffee a day, then stop after weeks, you’re very likely to experience withdrawal symptoms – but you’re unlikely to be addicted. Even for more addictive substances like heroin and cocaine, while addiction is far more likely, it is not directly tied to the phenomenon of tolerance and withdrawal.

Addiction is complicated, to say the least, but it’s important to tie the methodology of treatment to the individual’s perceptions and psyche, as well as their physical symptoms. Withdrawal is a physical process – but addiction is tied to both the body and the mind. While it’s important to explain both the physical and the mental aspects of addiction, it’s equally important to treat them together. A sober housing program might be the right choice for someone still overcoming the emotional addiction side and Los Angeles IOP treatment could help with the effects of the physical addiction.