Addiction can make a person feel lonely, helpless, and out of control, among a host of other emotions. You may suffer from a psychological (mental) addiction or a physical (biochemical) addiction, either of these can lead to the other. While both physical and psychological addiction can and will co-occur; there are significant differences between the two. It is essential to know and understand the difference before entering a treatment program for recovery.

What is Addiction?

Addiction is the continued use of a substance, activity, or thing regardless of the positive or negative consequences related to it. In 2014, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) conducted a nationwide survey which stated 21 million people over the age of 12 suffer from a substance use disorder. Most people believe physical and psychological dependence are the same; however, the following will help distinguish the difference between the two.

Physical Addiction

Physical addiction or physical dependence occurs when your body is deprived of the substance to which it has become accustomed. You will feel physical pain or sickness when your body craves the substance to which it is addicted. Your body can become addicted to anything such as caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, or drugs. If you drink coffee or soda every day, you will most likely feel a caffeine headache when you miss a day or when you decide to quit drinking it. The same effect occurs when a person addicted to drugs or alcohol goes without it for any length of time. Withdrawal symptoms, depending on the substance, can begin as early as the first few hours of not having it. Withdrawal symptoms can include:

  • Fatigue
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Muscle aches and pain
  • Chills or tremors
  • Delirium
  • Mood changes (anger, irritability)

Some substances can have severe or life-threatening withdrawal symptoms such as seizures or Delirium Tremens (DTs).

Psychological Addiction

Psychological addiction or psychological dependence is when your mind desires the substance you are using. This is typical among drugs such as marijuana which does not contain addictive ingredients. The same is true when a person is addicted to food, the need to keep eating beyond the point of being full or eating just for pleasure. Instead of your body telling you it is time for the substance, your mind is telling you it has a strong desire for the euphoric effect you feel from it.

While you may not be suffering the physical addiction, psychological addictions can negatively affect your life. Withholding a substance which has created an euphoric effect can cause the psychologically dependent person to experience the following symptoms:

  • Anxiety
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Depression
  • Flu-like illness
  • Increased or diminished appetite
  • Extreme cravings
  • Mood swings

Co-occurring disorders can develop with both psychological addiction and physical addiction.

How Addiction Affects the Brain

Both physical addictions and psychological addictions affect similar portions of the brain. The part of the brain which controls critical thinking, learning, decision making, and behavior control changes when a person partakes in continued substance use. Dopamine levels in the brain are increased when a person uses a substance that creates a euphoric effect. The brain will change to accommodate to the increased level of dopamine.

What are Cravings?

Cravings happen when your mind has an intense desire for a substance. A person will experience cravings when they decide to cut back or quit their addiction. Cravings can affect your entire life, your job, family, and daily activities. They can become debilitating if a person does not have a solid support system or professional help to learn how to control them. Cravings can also lead to a relapse.

Treatment of Physical Addiction

Treatment for physical addiction typically begins with detox under medical supervision. Medical professionals are trained to decrease the dangerous and life-threatening withdrawal symptoms. Detox may last from a few days to weeks; this time frame depends on the type and length of substance use.

Treatment of Psychological Addiction

Psychological addiction treatment is also used for physical addictions; however, it cannot begin until detox is complete, and the substance is completely out of the body. Psychological addiction treatment addresses the underlying cause for the substance use. Every treatment plan will be different for each person as no two addictions are identical.

You can expect to receive therapy for life coping skills and therapy to prevent relapse. Your therapy will include counseling along with behavioral therapy to help understand your underlying mental health issues. Family therapy is essential to help rebuild broken bonds and mistrust caused by the addiction. Family therapy can also include friends who are a part of your support system.

Choosing to seek treatment for physical and psychological addiction is the first step in getting on the road to recovery. Professional treatment will help treat all co-occurring disorders as well. A customized plan will be created to treat your specific issues and monitor drug withdrawal symptoms.