Difference between Physical and Psychological Dependence

Substance abuse can build a state of physical and psychological dependence that can be treated through intervention. But did you know that psychological dependence can also be exhibited by individuals who have gambling problems, eating disorders and other maladaptive behaviors?


Physical vs Psychological Dependence
Examples of addictive substances that can cause physical dependence

An individual’s physical dependence is caused by frequent use of addictive drugs in which the abrupt or gradual withdrawal from the drugs brings about unpleasant symptoms. The misuse of drugs such as heroin, morphine, diazepam, steroids and zolpidem, among others, can result in the body “adapting” to these substances. Nicotine and excessive alcohol intake can also cause physical dependence. The level of physical dependence determines how severe the withdrawal symptoms will be. This includes factors like duration of use, dosage taken and age of the user. These can all predict how bad the withdrawals will be, and they can last for days, weeks, or even months.

Withdrawal symptoms include high blood pressure and increased heart rate. Prolonged physical dependence on drugs can cause severe withdrawal symptoms such as seizures, confusion and hallucinations. Withdrawal from common drugs such as barbiturates, benzodiazepines and alcohol can cause convulsions that can be fatal. Quitting opioids such as morphine and cocaine are known to cause both physiological and mental pain, particularly in patients with weak hearts.

Treatment for patients depends on the substance being withdrawn from. Another drug is usually administered in situations where it is dangerous to abruptly quit the drug the patient was addicted to. Addiction to alcohol is also treated with benzodiazepines to ease withdrawal symptoms.

psychological dependence
Gambling is a maladaptive behavior that can cause psychological dependence

Psychological dependence on something involves emotional withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety, dissatisfaction and restlessness. This dependency is brought on by an individual’s desire to avoid such      withdrawal symptoms. An individual in withdrawal will also likely experience what is called anhedonia, or losing interest in things that are normally found pleasurable. Psychological dependence is sometimes considered part of addiction. However, there are some drugs that are known to cause dependence syndromes but do not cause addiction.

Psychological dependence can also be observed in individuals engaging in certain behaviors such as compulsive shopping, addiction to sex, and excessive consumption of fatty and sweet foods.

Treatment of psychological dependence involves using psychological techniques such as behavioral therapy.

Physical vs Psychological Dependence

Now that we know the definitions, what’s the difference between physical and psychological dependence? While both are categorized as part of addiction, the similarities end there.

An individual physically dependent on drugs will show unpleasant physical symptoms as well as psychological symptoms upon withdrawal from the drug. Physical dependence can cause a range of withdrawal symptoms, including increased blood pressure and heart rate, tremors, confusion and visual hallucinations.

Psychological dependence will cause emotional withdrawal symptoms once an intervention is started. Psychological dependence is indicated by withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety, dissatisfaction and restlessness.

An individual suffering from physical dependence is treated differently than one suffering from psychological dependence. The treatment for physical dependence would depend on the type of drug a patient was addicted to. It is not uncommon for another drug to be administered to ease extreme withdrawal symptoms or if it is dangerous for the patient to abruptly quit the drug. Psychological dependence is normally treated using behavioral therapy.

Comparison Chart

Physical Dependence Psychological Dependence
Caused by frequent consumption of addictive substances (e.g., drugs, alcohol, nicotine). Caused by frequent drug use and engaging in maladaptive behavior (e.g., compulsive shopping, excessive food consumption).
Abrupt or gradual withdrawal brings about unpleasant physical and psychological symptoms (sweating, tremors, hallucinations, confusion). Withdrawal symptoms are emotional in nature such as uneasiness, anxiety and dissatisfaction.
Treatment depends on the substance a patient is withdrawing from. Treatment involves psychological methods such as behavioral therapy.