Updated on 02/19/24

Content Reviewed by Cameron Bolish, M.Ed.

When a person thinks of dependence on alcohol or other drugs, physical dependence is likely the first thing that comes to mind. Physical dependence is when a person becomes reliant on a chemical substance to function. It is characterized by increased tolerance when using a substance and increased withdrawal symptoms when a substance is stopped or not being used.

Addiction is defined as a chronic and relapsing condition that involves compulsive drug-seeking behavior, despite the consequences it may cause. While physical dependence often accompanies addiction, it does not define addiction. However, psychological dependence may offer a better explanation of how addiction motivates substance-seeking behavior. Most chemicals that are physically addictive also have a psychological element that encourages repetitive substance use.

Psychological dependence is just as concerning as physical dependence, although it poses its own unique concerns because symptoms may be less evident. It is essential to understand that substance use of any kind can cause a person to develop psychological dependence. It is crucial to bring awareness to the effective treatment interventions for treating this type of dependence if and when it surfaces in you or your loved ones.

Symptoms of Psychological Dependence on Substances

Physical and psychological addiction symptoms overlap. While some may seem distinctly physical or psychological, there is no way to exclusively deem a symptom as just one or the other.

Psychological dependence can look similar to withdrawal symptoms, especially during those initial recovery phases. Common symptoms of dependence may include:

  • Cravings and desire to drink alcohol or use substances
  • Heightened anxiety when contemplating slowing down or quitting substance use
  • Irritability or mood swings when not under the influence of a substance or when trying to stop
  • The need to use substances to function normally or the belief that they are necessary for normal function
  • Obsessive thoughts about how to obtain alcohol or other drugs
  • Isolation and inability to be reached
  • Excessive spending on substances
  • Denial over substance use issues
  • Glorifying or romancing drug use

Substances that Increase the Risk of Developing Psychological Dependence

It is safe to say that alcohol and all other substances are associated with increased risks of developing psychological and physical dependence. However, when recognizing the severity of common withdrawal symptoms, several substances pose primarily psychological withdrawal effects. These substances include:

  • Stimulant drugs
  • Hallucinogenic drugs
  • Marijuana
  • Inhalants
  • Psychotropic medications, such as antidepressants or anti-anxiety medicine

The Science Behind Addiction and Psychological Dependence

While a healthy brain rewards healthy behaviors, such as eating, having social interaction or exercising, a brain impacted by addiction rewires itself to reward only substance-using behaviors. Repeated use of alcohol and other drugs hijacks several areas of the brain, especially areas associated with pleasure and reward. Chronic substance use also interferes with brain areas related to emotional regulation, self-control and cognitive skills, such as critical thinking and decision making.

On a chemical level, a brain impacted by addiction begins to depend on a substance to keep an individual’s mind and body feeling a certain way. Some people may develop psychological dependence because they think substances make them feel relaxed in high-tension states, while others initially use them as a sleep aid. In contrast, others may develop it because they rely on substances to concentrate or perform at a heightened level. The root cause of why psychological dependence developed will play a vital role in an individual’s treatment experience, specifically in how a person finds the motivation to achieve and secure sobriety.

Treatment for Psychological Dependence on Substances

Effective treatment for alcohol and other drug use must involve treating both the physical and psychological dependencies involved with substance use. Physical dependence is initially treated with detox and followed up with continuing treatment. Facilities may offer medication-assisted detox or medication-assisted treatment to help calm the biological urges associated with withdrawal.

On the other hand, treating psychological dependence is a bit more challenging and complex. It requires a long-term commitment to cognitive and behavioral therapies that can address the link between your thoughts, motives and behaviors. In treatment, you will learn how to challenge intrusive thoughts and recognize your specific psychological dependence symptoms when they surface.

Long-term treatment for substance use, especially chemical dependence, must be comprehensive. It must utilize multiple therapeutic approaches that complement one another so that the person in therapy can rely on their preferred coping mechanisms as they work to achieve long-term recovery. It is crucial that individuals utilize the resources at their disposal and take advantage of community opportunities, such as support groups and outside social support, to have a successful and positive recovery experience.

PaRC (Prevention and Recovery Center) is a substance use and addiction treatment center specializing in providing the highest quality treatment for all ages. We understand that psychological dependence is challenging to overcome, which is why we help meet clients where they are at in their recovery journey. To learn more about our treatment programs or psychological dependence, please call us today at (713) 939-7272.