Physical Dependence vs. Psychological Dependence

Use this guide to discover the differences between physical dependence and psychological dependence.

What Is Dependence?

Developing dependence typically results from constant intake of addictive substances. The body’s chemical levels change, causing it to rely on the substance to function properly. When consumption of the drug ceases, the body may begin to experience certain withdrawal symptoms. These symptoms can either be physical or psychological. Physical drug dependence relates to unpleasant physical symptoms, while psychology describes mental symptoms.

Physical Dependence


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Addiction vs. Dependence

Addiction, also known as substance use disorder, is a neuropsychological disorder defined by uncontrollable and repeated drug misuse despite the harm, danger, and consequences. It is caused by changes in the brain’s chemistry due to persistent substance abuse. Dependence is the reliance on a substance or, in other words, the symptoms of tolerance and withdrawal.

It may be difficult to distinguish dependence from addiction, especially when some medications, such as prescription pain medications, require increasing doses. Keep reading to learn more about physical and psychological dependence and their significance.

What Is Physical Dependence?

Physical dependence, also known as physiological dependence, describes a state where individuals develop chronic dependence on a substance due to prolonged intake. In this state, tolerance increases, usually resulting in negative effects.
When discontinuation occurs, physical withdrawal symptoms may be noticeable. Note that there’s a difference between tolerance and withdrawal. Tolerance means when an individual doesn’t respond to a specific dose of a substance as they did previously. In most cases, the higher the dose, the greater the physical dependency.

How Is Physical Dependence Different From Addiction?

There’s a major difference between dependency and addiction. As mentioned above, addiction relates to behavioral changes in the brain due to biochemical activity after frequent substance intake, while dependence relates to tolerance and withdrawal symptoms.
Anyone can experience physical dependency without a substance use disorder. Thus, physical dependence doesn’t directly constitute addiction but usually accompanies it. 1
Substance use becomes a top priority for individuals experiencing addiction, regardless of its effects. Note that addiction also encompasses both physical and psychological dependence.

Physical Dependence Symptoms

Developing dependence can be very mild. For instance, the body can adapt to staying alert with coffee intake every morning, and if that cup of coffee is not consumed one morning, certain physical symptoms become evident.
Some common physical dependence symptoms will be detailed below.


Experiencing depressive symptoms is common among individuals with physical drug dependence. Depression can cause loss of appetite, change in energy levels, and low self-esteem. In addition, people may feel intense feelings of hopelessness, sadness, and loneliness. 2


Individuals may grow angry toward themselves due to dependence on a substance. Without help, it may become relatively difficult to express anger or create a healthy coping mechanism.

Lack of Sleep

Drug physical dependence may cause sleep problems. It may affect sleep quality, latency, and overall duration. With time, insomnia may increase in severity and may cause nightmares.

Gastro-Abdominal Issues

Some gastro-abdominal issues that may occur are stomach pain, diarrhea, and vomiting. For proper diagnosis, it’s imperative to look out for other symptoms and consult the doctor.


In severe cases, physical dependence symptoms may include seizures. There are various seizure triggers. Ensure to consult a doctor for proper diagnosis.


Certain medications, such as immune suppressants and asthma medicine, can cause trembling due to withdrawal.

Psychological Dependence Symptoms

Psychological dependence symptoms vary from person to person. However, common symptoms usually include:

Not Capable of Stopping Drug Use

There’s a drug tolerance psychology in “dependence.” When there’s a problem with the dopamine system in the brain, it becomes difficult to make conscious decisions. Hence, consistent intake of drugs becomes normal and challenging to discontinue. 3

Abusing Drugs Even When Health Problems Arise

People may continue to take substances even when health conditions arise. Examples include lung or heart disease, cancer, stroke, or mental health conditions.

Using Narcotics to Deal With Everyday Stressors or Problems

Individuals often may want an outlet or coping mechanism for issues in day-to-day life. For this reason, some tend to turn to substance use.


A constant obsession with a certain substance is a major symptom of psychological dependence. Some may be obsessed with the rewarding activity that occurs for a short time after taking the drug or medication.

Taking a Gamble

Intake of certain drugs can make individuals gamble on specific life decisions. Note that taking a gamble involves engaging in risky actions or activities out of character for the individual.

Taking Larger Doses

Before taking any substance, it’s imperative to know the appropriate dosage. Constant intake of certain physiological dependence drugs can cause a drop in its effects. For this reason, individuals tend to increase doses to maintain the previous feeling.

Difference Between Physical and Psychological Dependence

Physical and psychological dependence on drugs differs based on the substances’ effects on the body.

Physical Dependence

Physical dependence is characterized by the physical—tolerance and withdrawal—symptoms caused by persistent substance use. It is caused by chemical changes and imbalances in the brain, altering how the body functions. These changes are why physical symptoms occur.

Physical dependence differs from psychological dependence based on the type of symptoms experienced from repeated substance use. For example, stomach pains, needing a higher amount of the substance to experience the same effects, seizures, vomiting, and trembling are all physical symptoms that result from developing a tolerance for and withdrawing from a drug.

Psychological Dependence

Psychological dependence is characterized by the mental—emotional and cognitive—symptoms associated with substance use disorders. It is the result of developing or recovering from addiction and can be caused by tolerance and withdrawal.

Symptoms like obsession, inability to cease use, anxiety, and irritability are all signs of psychological dependency symptoms.

Relationship Between Physical and Psychological Addiction

The relationship between physical and psychological addiction relates to their treatment procedures. Individuals experiencing physical addiction and dependence may require medical drug detoxification. With detox, individuals can experience physical and mental symptoms of withdrawal that range from mild to severe.

Medical detox is imperative for treating physical drug dependence. It gives the body time to cleanse itself from toxins and chemicals causing physical addiction, which helps manage psychological withdrawal symptoms. After detox, most people are ready for rehab treatment.

Get Treatment for Physical and Psychological Dependence

Here are some effective treatment procedures for dependence:
Treatment for Physical and Psychological Dependence

Drug Detox

Drug detox involves clearing the body of harmful toxins from consistent substance use. Medically-assisted detox provides a safe environment where withdrawal symptoms are carefully and properly managed. In most cases, detox takes up to two weeks, but the duration usually varies depending on the substance. For instance, detox from benzodiazepines takes longer compared to that alcohol. The detox process involves evaluation and stabilization, and it’s advisable to undergo the process in a treatment facility.

Medication-Assisted Treatment

Medication-assisted treatment (MAT) involves utilizing medications alongside counseling and behavioral therapies. MAT aims to provide a “whole-patient” approach to treating physical and psychological dependence on drugs. Studies show that the treatment procedure reduces the need for inpatient detox in various types of dependence. 4


Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is one of the major types of dependence treatment procedures. CBT helps individuals recognize poor behavioral patterns and develop coping skills. Mental health experts can also combine CBT with other therapeutic techniques like rational emotive behavior therapy.

Learn More With Concise Recovery

Concise Recovery provides addiction detox and recovery treatment. Our treatment facility focuses on the well-being and recovery of patients by combining the holistic and therapeutic approaches to treatment. Contact us today if you want to learn more about physical vs. psychological dependence.