Doctor Decoded: How Addiction Differs from Dependency

The thesaurus says they’re synonyms, but there’s a big difference.

Loading the player...

If you check the thesaurus, addiction and dependency are listed as synonyms. However, in medicalese, these two terms have important distinctions.

Addiction is a psychological disease that involves the brain’s reward system. It occurs when someone develops intense desires and pre-occupation for a certain substance or activity, despite the fact that it has harmful consequences.

As addiction rewires the brain’s circuitry, it can cause distorted thinking, impaired judgment, and poor decision making. The persistent pursuit for the “reward” of the addiction eventually compromises health, relationships, and jobs.

Tolerance for the “hit” builds up over time, and increasingly larger amounts are needed to achieve the high. That’s why people who abuse alcohol might be able to tolerate several drinks at once, and people addicted to nicotine might crave a pack of cigarettes a day.

Based on this criteria, common addictions include nicotine and alcohol (which are substances that alter the brain and are highly addictive) and gambling (which uses manipulative practices that continuously reward the brain and become addictive).

Dependency is when neurons adjust to the presence of a drug or medicine. The body isn’t necessarily *craving* the drug, but it struggles to function normally without it. When the drug is withheld, withdrawal symptoms ensue.

Some common examples of dependency are caffeine, sleep aids, or anti-depressants. Think of it this way: If you regularly take sleep aids, you don’t necessarily obsess about getting a “hit” of your next melatonin pill. However, you might struggle to fall asleep naturally if you suddenly stop taking them. For this reason, drugs like sleep aids are not recommended for long-term use.

There is some overlap between addiction and dependency, but a good way to think about it is dependency affects normal function, whereas addiction disrupts your entire life. While it’s possible to die from addiction due to overdose, it’s unlikely to die from dependency since the brain isn’t obsessed with getting a “hit.”

If you’re worried about the effects of your medication, here are tips to ease your worries about addiction and dependency.