Mental vs. Physical Addiction to Drugs

This guide to mental and physical addiction to drugs will help you better understand addiction and dependence.

Addiction and dependence are terms that are often used interchangeably, but they’re not the same thing, although they typically occur together. Understanding the difference between mental and physical addiction to drugs will help you better address the issues that keep you mired in your addiction despite wanting or trying to quit. 

Addiction: A Mental Addiction to Drugs

Addiction is characterized by compulsive drug or alcohol abuse despite the fact that the abuse causes serious problems in your life, such as problems with your relationships, finances, physical or mental health, and the law.

Addiction is the result of changes in the chemical functions and physical structures of the brain that are caused by heavy substance abuse. These changes primarily occur in the brain regions that govern motivation, memory, learning, and pleasure, and they involve the brain chemical dopamine and other neurotransmitters.

How Addiction Develops

When you do things that feel good, your brain releases the feel-good chemical dopamine. Normal, everyday pleasures, such as eating food or having sex, produce a measured dopamine rush. The dopamine system is designed to help the species survive by making you want to keep performing the activities that are essential for thriving. When you do something that makes you feel pleasure, your brain records a memory of the both the activity and the environmental cues that are present. The learning center begins to form a strong association between doing the activity and the pleasure it produces. The memory of the pleasure motivates you to do the activity again.

The one thing all psychoactive drugs have in common is that they produce a large dopamine rush. Because the dopamine is released in much larger concentrations than it is when you do normal pleasurable activities, it hijacks your brain, and your motivation, reward, learning, and memory centers begin communicating in a way that equates wanting drugs with needing it. Signs of drug addiction include powerful cravings, triggered by the environmental cues that are present when you use, such as certain people, places, or things, negative emotions, or stress. You begin to lose the motivation to seek pleasure from everyday sources, such as hobbies and relationships, and your focus eventually turns primarily to drug-seeking and using activities. This naturally causes problems in your life as you take risks, neglect relationships, and stop taking good care of yourself. These are all important signs of drug addiction.

Risk Factors for Addiction

Not everyone who engages in substance abuse becomes addicted. Whether or not an addiction develops depends on a number of factors. Roughly half of your risk of addiction is genetic, and the other half involves factors like environment, biology, and culture. Some risk factors can increase your chances of developing an addiction. The most common include chronic stress, a history of trauma, and a history of mental illnesses, including anxiety and depression.

Dependence: A Physical Addiction to Drugs

Dependence is a physical reliance on drugs and is characterized by addiction withdrawal symptoms when you stop using.

Dependence occurs as a result of the changes your brain goes through as it tries to compensate for chronic drug abuse. When you engage in heavy substance abuse, your brain changes the way it functions. For example, initial alcohol abuse increases the activity of the neurotransmitter GABA – responsible for feelings of calm – and decreases the activity of glutamate, which makes you feel excitable. When you heavily abuse alcohol, your brain tries to maintain normal operation by reducing the activity of GABA and increasing that of glutamate. The result is tolerance.

Tolerance means that you need increasingly larger doses of drugs or alcohol to get the same effects a smaller dose once produced. But the more you use, the more your brain tries to compensate. At some point, the brain may begin to function more comfortably when drugs are present. Then, when you stop using, normal brain function returns, and the result is physical addiction withdrawal symptoms.

Treating Mental vs. Physical Addiction to Drugs

Medical detox treats physical dependence on drugs, but it does very little to address the addiction, which is far more complex. Treatment for addiction involves a variety of therapies that help you develop essential skills for coping with triggers like stress and cravings. Therapy helps you change harmful thought and behavior patterns and find purpose and meaning in a life free of drugs. Detox and treatment work to end both mental and physical addiction to drugs, and they can work for you.

If you or a loved one needs help with abuse and/or treatment, please call the WhiteSands Treatment at (877) 855-3470. Our addiction specialists can assess your recovery needs and help you get the addiction treatment that provides the best chance for your long-term recovery.

About the Author

is a proud alumni member of WhiteSands Treatment. After living a life of chaos, destruction and constant let downs, Mark was able to make a complete turnaround that sparked a new way of life. He is serious about his recovery along with helping others. At WhiteSands Treatment, we offer support to you in your homes or when you are out living in your daily lives.