Physical Dependence Vs Psychological Dependence

Dependence on substances can be very difficult for a person. It can lead to withdrawal effects, mental health problems, and a lower quality of life.   

Physical Dependence Vs Psychological Dependence

Table of Contents

The Two Types of Dependence

Dependence may vary depending on the individual and the substance they use. Moreover, people can become chemically dependent on a substance in two different ways. They can become physically dependent on the drug or psychologically dependent on the drug. All drugs can be psychologically dependent, but not all drugs can make someone physically dependent on them. 


Physical dependence happens after a person chronically uses drugs over a period. There are several different prescription drugs and street drugs that can cause physical dependence. When a person becomes physically dependent, their body has adapted to the drug. Over time, people will build up a tolerance to the substance.


Psychological dependence settles in when “a drug becomes central to a person’s thoughts, emotions and activities.”2 It leads to people continuing to use the drug repeatedly even if they know the negative side effects. Not every drug can cause physical dependence, but all substances can cause psychological dependence for the person. 

Physical Dependence

Physical dependence can cause major, long-term effects that damage the entire body. When a person becomes physically dependent on a drug, they may experience withdrawal effects and cravings when the drug use stops. Several different side effects can happen in the short and long term.

Negative Physical Side Effects

Multiple physical side effects can occur within a person once they have developed a physical dependence on a drug. Some of them include:

  • Drastic changes in appetite
  • Sleep troubles
  • Troubles speaking
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Loss of coordination
  • Extreme loss of weight 

Results of Prolonged Substance Use

In the long term, prolonged substance use can lead to liver damage, heart damage, and other fatal issues. People who struggle with a substance use disorder can have kidney damage, breathing problems, heart disease, and eventually, could be at risk for overdose.3 Physical dependence on a drug can also lead to severe withdrawal when the drug is not being used. Some withdrawals, such as with alcohol use disorder, can be fatal or can have several severe side effects. 

Warning Signs of Physical Dependence

There are several different warning signs that a person has become physically dependent on a drug. Substance use disorder can be difficult to overcome, and there can be significant shame involved. Because of this issue, it might be difficult for someone to admit to having a problem. Here are a few of the symptoms that you may notice when someone is becoming physically dependent on a substance.

Inability to Quit

When a person becomes physically dependent on a drug, it becomes extremely difficult to quit the substance. It can lead to a person’s life suddenly becoming focused on the substance of choice. A person might start to misuse the substance during stressful situations instead of using other coping mechanisms.

Lack of Self-Care

A person that is struggling with substance use disorder might also struggle with taking care of their personal hygiene once they become dependent on the drug. They might begin to have unhealthy eating habits leading to drastic weight loss or gain. Moreover, they might stop taking care of their body with normal routines such as brushing their teeth or showering.

This individual might also struggle with finances, and they may begin to skip out on activities that they previously enjoyed. Self-care can fall by the wayside when the brain becomes physically dependent on a substance because everything revolves around attaining the substance.

Withdrawal Symptoms

When a person becomes dependent on a substance, it is common for them to struggle with withdrawal symptoms when they go without a drug, though it can vary depending on the substance. For some, it might take a day. For others, it might settle in within a couple of hours. Some of the typical symptoms of withdrawal include:

  • Stomach issues
  • Vomiting/nausea
  • Appetite changes
  • Moodiness
  • Muscle aches
  • Troubles sleeping
  • Runny nose
  • Excessive sweating
  • Tremors
  • Restlessness 


Sleeping troubles can be very common with people that struggle with physical dependence. Normally, a person’s sleep schedule will start to change drastically as they continue to become more dependent on the substance. This issue is typically due to the side effects of substances and cravings.


Due to the physical dependence on the substance, a person might develop depression or anxiety. It can occur due to a chemical imbalance that starts to form in the brain, and it could be a withdrawal symptom. Sometimes, it is a symptom of the substance they are using, especially if it is a depressant. Also, a person might become depressed because so many other things in their life might be changing. 

Delirium Tremens (DTs)

Delirium tremens is a disorder that occurs when someone is struggling with alcohol withdrawal. It can be fatal, and it occurs normally a couple of days after a person’s last alcohol binge. Delirium tremens can lead to stroke, a heart attack, or a fatality. It is caused because alcohol slows down the nervous system. When a person quits drinking, their brain can become overstimulated.5 If untreated, it can become fatal quickly. 

Psychological Dependence

Psychological dependence covers the emotional and mental aspects of substance use disorders. When a person feels a need to use a substance even when they know it is harmful to them, they might be struggling with psychological dependence.

Psychological dependence normally occurs when a person has created enough neurological pathways that make taking the substance to deal with stress or to gain a euphoric feeling. Even though a person might not be physically dependent on the substance, they might develop a psychological dependence, which can still lead to negative side effects.

Negative Psychological Side Effects

Multiple negative psychological side effects can occur after prolonged use of a substance. Some of those include:

  • Paranoia
  • Anxiety
  • Being afraid without reason
  • Random periods of energy or instability
  • Moodiness
  • Irritability
  • Anger
  • Personality changes
  • Lack of motivation 

Results of Prolonged Substance Use

In the long term, psychological dependence won’t have the same physical symptoms of withdrawal. However, there are still some very powerful things that can take place. A person can get increased anxiety when they do not have their substance of choice. Withdrawal for psychological dependence is called post-acute withdrawal syndrome. It can lead to sleep troubles, moodiness, uncontrollable emotions, anxiety, depression, apathy, and difficulties managing stress and relationships. 

Warning Signs of Psychological Dependence

When a person becomes psychologically dependent on a substance, it can be much more difficult to detect. Because people can become psychologically dependent on things like caffeine, pornography, and video games, there might not be a clear connection between side effects and the behaviors that are taking place right away. Here are a few warning signs that you or a loved one might be dealing with psychological dependence.


When a person becomes dependent on a substance, they will begin to crave it throughout the day. This issue can become more and more intense if the addiction continues. These cravings can cause the person to focus more of their life around the substance, which might end up causing issues in their day-to-day life.

For example, a person that is addicted to video games might choose to fulfill their craving to play a game instead of spending time with a loved one or skipping an event they were looking forward to.


Because of the psychological dependence on the substance, a person can eventually develop depression, especially when they are not using the substance. Depression normally develops due to the brain not being able to cope with stressful situations. A person might also start to struggle with depression due to the negative consequences of their psychological dependence.


A person can become restless and anxious when they do not have their substance. This dependence can cause a person to have to rely on the substance to function in day-to-day life.6 The difficulties involved in dealing with the mood swings and emotions that come along with psychological dependence can trigger restlessness inside of a person.

Sleep Issues

Sleep issues such as insomnia become very prevalent, which can happen for several reasons. For one, a person might change their sleeping patterns to continue using their substance of choice. However, anxiety and restlessness can also cause a person to stay awake at night and find difficulties falling asleep.


Denial can be a significant red flag that a person might be dealing with psychological dependence. Many times, these things are not normal drugs, causing people to feel like they are safe from addiction. Trying to convince someone that perhaps they have a caffeine dependency, or they are struggling with video game addiction can be very difficult.

Much of the time, these aspects are normal things that are used in excess or unhealthy ways. Because of that, it is easier for a person to deny that they are struggling.

Obsessive Behavior

Finally, a person can become obsessive when they are struggling with psychological dependence. They might obsess over the substance, choosing to center their life around it, or they may begin to obsess over little things that might irritate them when they are not using it. Either way, obsessive behavior tends to be common among people who are struggling with dependence.

Treatment for Dependence

There are a few different ways to treat dependence. It is important to remember that addiction and dependence are two separate things. When abuse escalates into dependence, it complicates any treatment program because withdrawal symptoms are bound to happen. There are some medicine-assisted treatment plans. 

Behavioral Therapies

CBT is one of the best ways to overcome physical or psychological dependence. During behavioral therapy, a person can learn different ways to cope with stress and learn new, healthier habits. Behavioral therapy is important if the person is to have long-term success over the dependence. 

Holistic Therapies

Holistic therapies can be another great way to overcome dependency. The goal of holistic therapy is to focus on the entire person when looking at interventions. They will look at helping the person’s mind as well as their body, that way a patient can start taking care of their physical and psychological needs. 


Finally, detox is the process of removing the substance from your life. It can be a difficult process, and it should be done under the supervision of a medical care professional. This is especially the case for physical dependence since there could be fatal withdrawal symptoms. Some therapy programs might use a tapered approach depending on the substance and the severity of the withdrawal effects.

Psychological and physical dependence can be very difficult and challenging for the person affected and their loved ones. Seeking treatment and help is one of the first steps. However, there might be a process of coming out of denial that is important to respect. If you or a loved one is struggling with dependence, having open and honest conversations can be a step in the right direction towards treatment. 


If you or a loved one needs help, please call us at
623-523-4748 and our team at Blueprints For Recovery in Arizona will help.

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