Sober Help: Learning the Difference Between Addiction & Chemical Dependency

Sober Help: Learning the Difference Between Addiction & Chemical Dependency | Transcend Recovery Community

It’s easy to think that a chemical or substance dependency is the same as having an addiction. However, they are in fact different. If you want to learn about addiction as a way of finding sober help or treatment, then you might be interested in learning the difference between these two experiences. You can have a chemical dependency without having an addiction, and you can even have an addiction without having a chemical dependency.

Chemical dependency is the physical and/or psychological dependence on a substance. Depending up on the drug, someone with chemical dependency might experience tolerance and withdrawal. In these cases, it’s clear that the body has adapted to the drug, requiring more of it to achieve a certain effect, which is the definition of tolerance. At the same time, the body might experience physical or mental symptoms if drug use comes to an end, known as withdrawal symptoms. Chemical dependency can happen with the chronic use of drugs. This can happen with many prescription drugs as well, even if they are taken as instructed. In fact, chemical dependency upon prescription drugs is the gateway to opiate addiction for many teens and adults in America today. The chemical dependency can eventually turn into the cycle of addiction, which is something else entirely and will be described below. Chemical dependency does not necessarily mean that the cycle of addiction and compulsions have begun.

There are distinct qualities to addiction that make it different than a chemical dependency. Those within the drug counseling field know that it is the activation of the brain’s reward system that is the key to addiction. Addictions are patterns of compulsive behavior that can get out of hand. A compulsion is an irresistible urge to behave in a certain way, especially against your own conscious wishes. Sure, you might have a compulsion to go the movies one night but it’s not an ongoing pattern that leads to not having money for food because you’re buying too many movie tickets or the inability to pay your bills. Your compulsion for going to the movies is held in check.

However, when a compulsion grows and expands it can turn into an addiction, one that’s harmful to you and those around you. An alcohol or drug addiction, for example, could be defined by a loss of control where you find yourself spending large amounts of time engaging in alcohol-related activity to the point where you are neglecting social, academic, or familial responsibilities. You’re not only drinking but you’re thinking about drinking. You’re planning your day so that you can drink. You’re planning your financial life so that you can be sure to have enough money to buy alcohol throughout the month.

Furthermore, you can have addictions to behaviors not just substances. For instance, gambling, shopping, working, and having sex can become addictive. According to the American Psychological Association, non-substance addictions are those that include any behavior that an individual has lost power over. Research points to behaviors, such as gambling, having the same high, or rush in the brain, that is similar to the use of drugs. In that way, addictions can resemble the physiological symptoms that the use of drugs and alcohol might create. Previously, gambling or other addictions were categorized under Impulse Control Disorders. However, the recent version of the DSM now places non-substance addictions under a catchall category called “Behavioral Addiction.” This not only includes gambling, but could also include shopping, sexual activity, and even working. In this way, an individual can experience an addiction, but not have a chemical dependency.

This article was meant to point out the differences between chemical dependency and addiction. Having an addiction is an illness that has a cyclical quality to it. Although chemical dependency is not an addiction, having such a physical and psychological dependence can lead to addiction. Chemical dependency in and of itself does not constitute addiction, but it often accompanies addiction.

Learning about the illness of addiction, including how it differs from chemical dependency, can be a form of sober help. And this kind of learning can aide in the process of achieving sober living. Understanding the finer details of addiction, its perpetuating cycle, and the risks involved if there are no treatment interventions can assist an individual in healing.


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