Difference between physical dependence and psychological dependence on drugs

Difference between physical dependence and psychological dependence on drugs

In the world of drugs we usually talk about two different types of addiction: The physical dependence and psychological dependence. Today, we tell you what is the difference between these two types of dependency (which is not the same as addiction, it should be noted).


  • 1 Tolerance, dependence and withdrawal syndrome
  • 2 So what is the difference between physical and psychological dependence?
  • 3 What kind of dependency is worse?

Tolerance, dependence and withdrawal syndrome

To explain the difference between both types of dependency, the best thing to do is explain the three elements that are dealt with when someone starts using drugs, which are the tolerance, the dependence and the abstinence syndrome.

Drug tolerance

The tolerance It is the adaptation mechanism that the body has to accept and support the presence of the substance. This allows to avoid the immediate damage to the organism, but, at the same time, the pleasant effects.

It is because of that a person who has been using a drug for a long time needs more to feel the same effect. At the same time, it is the reason that a person who has been consuming time can consume an amount that would kill a new person who consumes it for the first time.

Dependence and withdrawal syndrome

The dependency, meanwhile, is the need to consume the drug, and, as the title of this article itself indicates, it can be physical or psychological. And, linked to dependence, is withdrawal syndrome, which is a clinical picture that appears when there is physical dependence.

So what is the difference between physical and psychological dependence?

The main difference between physical and psychological dependence is that one is a physiological or organic dependence and the other is a mental dependence. Physiological dependence involves damage when the substance is abandoned, because the body has become accustomed to it.

Thus, we find that it is the physical dependence that generates the withdrawal syndrome when it is stopped using, but it does not happen with the psychological dependence.

However, here we must mention something important and rarely taken into account, and that is that physical dependence itself does not constitute an addiction to that substance (it is true that they usually go hand in hand, but not necessarily).

For example, imagine that you are in the hospital and they put you morphine on a recurring basis because you have a pain that justifies it. It is likely that, at the end of the treatment, you will have withdrawal symptoms, because your body has developed physical dependence.

However, since there is no psychological dependence (that is, you have not built a whole series of stories and mental traps that lead you to think that you need the substance), you will not have problems to stop using it. Simply, you will have a bad day with withdrawal, and that's it.

However, it is true that the usual thing is that both types of dependency go hand in hand.

In fact, A good example of psychological dependence are antidepressants or sleeping pills. The person may have overcome the original problem and, physiologically, be ready to live without the use of these substances.

However, he has built a series of stories that lead him to think that, without antidepressants or sleeping pills, he cannot be well emotionally or cannot sleep. There is an addiction, although the physical dependence is minimal (or nonexistent).

It may interest you: What drives someone to use drugs?

What kind of dependency is worse?

It is often thought that physical dependence is worse than psychological dependence, because physical dependence is linked to harder drugs, such as injected cocaine or heroin, while psychological dependence is associated with milder drugs, such as marijuana or LSD (Although the latter case does not generate any type of dependency, for reasons that are not relevant).

Nevertheless, the truth is that psychological dependence is really serious, as we have seen before. It is the psychological dependence that makes us think that we need the substance for our day to day.

Therefore, in any attempt to overcome an addiction you have to work hard on psychological dependence, making the consumer see that the substance is not necessary to develop their life normally.

One last note: We have said that physical dependence generates a withdrawal syndrome with nausea, pain or even hallucinations (as in the case of alcohol). Nevertheless, Psychological dependence can also generate something similar.

Physiologically, you should not generate any of those symptoms. But the mind is very powerful, and certain thoughts can be somatized. Therefore, stopping sleeping pills may really make it cost you more sleep, but it is something psychological that is somatized, it is not something proper physiological.

As you can see, Physical dependence and psychological dependence on a drug are not the same. That is why we should differentiate them, because, otherwise, any analysis we do will be biased and we cannot fully understand the implications of these substances.