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What Is Psychological Dependence?

5 minute read

Psychological dependence on drugs or alcohol is the emotional, motivational, and mental addictive qualities that come with substance abuse. Also known as a psychological addiction, psychological dependence has been linked to marijuana addiction, hallucinogen addiction, and other drug addictions that don’t have a strong physical dependency component to them. The truth is all kinds of addictions have a psychological component. Even opiate addiction, alcohol addiction, and meth addiction, which are physically addictive, have a psychological element that perpetuates a substance use disorder.

What Are Symptoms of Psychological Dependence?

Psychological addiction and physical addiction are intertwined and play off each other, so it’s difficult to point to a symptom and say it’s exclusively psychological and vice versa. One example of psychological dependence is the associations your brain makes with people, places, and things tied to alcohol and drug addiction. Research shows the addicted brain develops strong links between substance use and:

  • Where you use substances.
  • Who you use them with.
  • What emotions you’re feeling when you use drugs or alcohol.
  • Situations and events tied to substance abuse.

These associations are so strong they can activate your brain’s reward system in the same way it would react to the substance of your choice being in front of you. That’s why just being around these people, places, or things can create intense cravings and urges to use substances. These are known as triggers. It’s important that any form of substance abuse treatment focuses on identifying triggers and teaching you healthier ways of dealing with them.

Other psychological addiction symptoms often include:

  • Regular thoughts about drug abuse or alcohol abuse, like when, where, and how you’ll use them again.
  • Belief that you need drugs or alcohol to function or be successful in certain situations, for example, social situations, family events, sleeping, or work.
  • Getting anxious or depressed when you think of not having the substance or not being able to get it when you want it.
  • Avoiding events where drugs or alcohol won’t be available.
  • Continuing to abuse drugs and alcohol despite negative consequences to your relationships, job, finances, and health.

The Difference Between Psychological and Physical Dependence

People with substance use disorders experience both physical and psychological dependencies. During physical dependence, your body becomes dependent on a substance to function. For instance, an opioid addiction may begin as a pursuit to get pleasurable feelings that come with the flood of dopamine initiated by the drug. With continued abuse, opioids start depleting your brain’s natural supply of dopamine. The brain starts relying on opioids to produce dopamine. If you stop using opioids, your central nervous system goes into overtime, trying to rebalance itself without the help of drugs and you begin to experience physical withdrawal symptoms like vomiting, muscle aches, and rapid heart rate. This signifies a physical dependence.

When you’re experiencing psychological addiction, your thoughts may be consumed with when you’ll use drugs or alcohol again, or how you’ll get more of the substance you’re abusing. Awareness of the negative consequences stemming from your substance abuse do not deter you from using. Psychological dependence does not produce physical sensations, but instead surfaces as the mental desire to use drugs and alcohol, and the feelings tied to substance abuse.

Post-acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS) is fueled by both physical and psychological addiction. PAWs are withdrawal symptoms that continue after you’re no longer physically dependent on alcohol or drugs like opioids. These symptoms can continue for weeks to months, improving gradually. As your central nervous system continues to repair itself and rebalance brain chemicals, you may experience:

  • Confusion or “fogginess”
  • Insomnia
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Irritability and agitation
  • Mood swings
  • Low energy
  • Low motivation
  • Decreased ability to manage stress

Psychological addiction can challenge your sobriety during PAWS. The pull to self-medicate these uncomfortable feelings with drugs or alcohol can be strong, putting you at high risk of relapse.

How Do You Treat Psychological Dependence?

Alcohol and drug addiction treatment should include approaches for both physical and psychological dependencies. A dual diagnosis treatment center includes both mental health treatment and holistic approaches like nutrition, fitness, massage therapy, medication management, and other features that help mend the physical deficits of addiction. Some substance addictions will require special approaches to tackle the physical components. For example, heroin addiction treatment often includes medication-assisted treatment (MAT), which are medications and approaches that help ease withdrawal symptoms and cravings that arise during detox and the early days of recovery.

Behavioral therapy is needed to address psychological dependence. In group therapy and individual therapy, you’ll learn how your thoughts and behaviors are linked. You’ll practice ways of changing maladaptive thought patterns and ways of relating to others.

Substance abuse and mental health treatment helps you learn the reasons behind your addiction so that you can begin to heal from those challenges. Therapists may use a variety of approaches to help you address past wounds and maintain sobriety by learning healthier ways to think about yourself and deal with triggers. Common addiction therapy approaches include cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavior therapy, and acceptance and commitment therapy. You’ll learn relapse prevention skills to help you resist urges and cravings and build a supportive network of sober peers.

Get Help For Addiction

If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, we can help. Footprints to Recovery offers a full continuum of care that includes:

Our highly experienced treatment staff will help you get to the root causes of addiction and learn a healthier more fulfilling way of life. Depending on the Footprints to Recovery addiction treatment center location, you’ll take part in:

  • Individual and group therapy
  • Medical detox
  • Co-occurring disorders treatment / medication management
  • Fitness and nutrition
  • Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR)
  • Holistic addiction therapies like yoga, meditation, massage therapy, and chiropractic services
  • Family therapy program

Life is better in recovery. Call us today for a free, confidential consultation.


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