Addiction vs Dependence

Definitions vary when it comes to outlining the difference between addiction and dependence. Some organisations use the words interchangeably and others abandon both entirely. If you or someone you love might be suffering from either addiction or dependence it’s important to speak to a trained professional who can make the appropriate recommendations regarding treatment. 

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Addiction is defined as a brain disorder involving repeated or compulsive participation in a substance, such as drugs or alcohol, or an activity, such as eating or gambling, to the point where it is harmful to the individual. Repeated use increases an individual’s need to participate in the activity more often and for longer periods of time in order to achieve the desired  ‘high’. Often this excessive use leads to negative and sometimes life-threatening consequences. 

Addiction is a systemic disease that affects you, but those around you. It’s a complex condition that includes both physical and psychological elements that are often difficult to separate. 

It takes you away from your reality often leading you to withdraw from everyday responsibilities such as work, school, parental duties, and even things such as personal hygiene and eating. There have been countless studies into the causes of addiction, many of which found that genetic predisposition and negative early childhood experiences, among other factors, play significant roles in the likelihood of developing an addiction. 

addiction vs dependence


The term dependence typically refers to your physical and psychological dependence on a substance or behaviour. Psychological dependence occurs when a drug or behaviour becomes of central importance to your thoughts, emotions, and activities. Physical dependence occurs when your body begins to rely on a substance to function. When you stop using the said substance, you may experience physical symptoms of withdrawal. This can happen with or without psychological dependence. Whilst not everyone who is dependent is addicted, it is likely that addiction is right around the corner.

Symptoms of Physical Dependence

The symptoms of physical dependence typically present as withdrawal symptoms. Think of a smoker who hasn’t had a cigarette in a few hours, they begin to shake and get irritable, and agitated, these symptoms would be what’s known as withdrawal symptoms and point to physical dependence. Other symptoms include:

  • Shakes, also known as delirium tremens, (DT’s)
  • Cravings
  • Changes in mood, typically aggressive, agitated, irritable
  • Changes in behaviour, an obsession to get the next fix
  • Sleeping issues

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Symptoms of Psychological Dependence

Psychological dependence is characterised by the mental component of dependence. This may mean a preoccupation of thoughts surrounding substance use or participating in an activity like gaming. Your mind may be entirely focused on your substance or behaviour which often leads to neglect of other responsibilities. Other symptoms may include:

  • Neglect of parental duties 
  • Neglect of personal hygiene 
  • Neglect of physical well-being, food etc
  • Obsessive thoughts about using substances
  • Neglect of work/school 
  • Lack of presence 

Symptoms of Physical and Psychological Dependence

Now put the two above together. An individual who is suffering from both physical and psychological dependence typically experiences both mental obsession and physical symptoms. An example of this might be a marijuana smoker or someone who takes pills. At first, this behaviour is considered a fun, casual activity, but as the individual continues chasing the original high, it soon becomes their main focus. This is where dependency can develop into an addiction. 

Recognising the Difference

Sometimes, it’s difficult to recognise the difference between addiction and dependence. The main characteristic that separates the two, is the combination of mental and physical dependence paired with uncontrollable behaviour in obtaining and using a substance that then begins to affect other areas of an individual’s life. Someone who has a prescription for pain medication may find that they need to increase the dosage in order for the medication to work properly.

Some may diagnose this as a simple increase in tolerance, whereas others may suggest it might be disguised as the possible start of an addiction issue. One of these patients may not have an addictive personality or traits whereas another individual may be more at risk when prescribed the medication. Addiction is usually present where the symptoms of physical and psychological dependence are apparent.


Recognising and understanding the distinctions between addiction and dependence can help to better understand the nature of the illness. Knowledge is an extremely valuable tool in recovery or helping a loved one to the path of recovery. It is important to realise that while dependence may be present without addiction, substance dependencies frequently lead to addiction. If you are concerned about yourself or someone you love, speak in confidence to trained addiction specialists who can advise you on the best course of action for treatment. 

Getting Help for Addiction

If you’ve been abusing drugs or alcohol for long periods, you may have developed a physical dependence, the treatment for which requires a medically assisted alcohol detox. If you’re looking for rehab within South East England, CATCH Recovery is an ideal place to begin your journey to recovery. 

Our South West London rehab clinic offers: 

Addiction assessments

Outpatient addiction rehab and therapy

Residential rehab referrals

Online addiction therapy

Recovery yoga


If you’re struggling but can’t commit to attending a clinic in South East England, you may find our Telehealth services ideal. Telehealth allows our clients to receive help and support for alcohol or drug addiction remotely on platforms such as Zoom, Skype or Teams. 

Alternatively, we also provide referrals to rehabs in other areas in the UK and Ireland as well as clinics in Sweden and The Netherlands.

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