Addicted or Dependent: Understanding Your Relationship With Substance Use

Among our most natural instincts as human beings is our desire to escape pain, whether physical or emotional. When you have a mental illness, it is common to turn to drugs and alcohol to cope with the overwhelming feelings you are experiencing, which is why people living with mental health disorders are significantly more likely to experience substance addiction than the general population. However, drugs and alcohol offer only temporary release; in the long term, your unhealthy relationship with harmful substances delays successful treatment for your mental health disorder, and you enter a cycle of self-destructive behaviors that can both aggravate your current condition and create new, grave emotional and physical health problems.

One of the first steps to investigating your substance use is understanding the nuanced differences between addiction and dependency, two concepts which may share significant characteristics but require unique interventions. Having the language to accurately describe your relationship with drugs or alcohol is vital to identify problems, promote understanding, and lay the foundation for a path forward. The ability to describe and classify your interactions with substance use as addiction or dependence can help you determine whether you need treatment–and what kind of treatment will be the most beneficial to support your recovery.

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Physical Dependency

Physical dependency means that your body relies on a substance, but mentally you can stop at any time; your brain is not hooked. The human body is highly adaptable, and chronic substance use changes our physiological functions and expectations as they quickly accommodate chemical changes. After prolonged use of drugs or alcohol, our bodies become dependent on a constant supply of these substances to maintain a state of equilibrium, and abruptly removing the substance can cause withdrawal symptoms that range from mild discomfort to extreme physical distress. You may become physically dependent on a wide range of chemicals, not just recreational drugs or alcohol, often with no ill effects. For example, you can become dependent on correctly used psychotropic medications, and this dependency can be a benign state that presents no cause for concern. However, depending on the type of substance and the manner in which it is being used, being dependent can also have serious long-term health implications and require professional care to ease the physical symptoms of withdrawal and return your body to a state of well-being.


Most people experiencing substance addiction will have developed some level of physical dependence, but also have an additional layer of psychological dependence that presents drastically different motivations and dangers for substance use. Addiction is defined by its compulsive qualities that drive you to use drugs or alcohol despite negative impacts on your emotional, social, and physical well-being. People who self-medicate to manage symptoms of mental health disorders are particularly vulnerable to addiction. By relying on drugs and alcohol for a sense of emotional well-being or to deal with stressors, the psychological piece of the addiction puzzle is firmly wedged in place. As tolerance develops, you need larger amounts of the substance to create the same high, and the possibility of being without the substance can lead to feelings of deep distress and helplessness. Addiction quickly takes center stage in your life as you plan your daily activities around opportunities to use. You may go to great lengths to ensure you are able to indulge in addictive behaviors despite damage to your mind, body, and social relationships.

Challenges to Addiction Treatment

The psychological components to addiction present special barriers to treatment, as the destructive impetus of addiction can make breaking free from substance use an unappealing option. Treatment requires a commitment to resist the temptation of addictive behavior, and many addicts view recovery as losing something, rather than gaining health, wellness, and the ability to live an authentic life. While substance dependence may cause you to fear physical withdrawal, addicts fear the loss of their sense of self, their ability to cope with stress, and their capacity for pleasure. The self-destructive and maladaptive thinking processes addiction creates often require intensive medical intervention to provide relief from physical dependence and address your psychological motivations.

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Getting to the Root of Addiction

Whereas physical dependence is a straightforward physiological process informed by your body’s reaction to chemical stimulation, addiction is a complex condition informed by emotional and experiential factors. For those who self-medicate to manage pre-existing mental health disorders, simply treating the addiction is not enough, as its roots remain intact, leaving you vulnerable to relapse and continued suffering. In order to adequately deal with substance abuse, you must identify and treat the complete scope of the addiction, including the co-occurring mental health disorder in order to provide meaningful, lasting relief.

Specialized treatment programs such as Bridges to Recovery offer advanced therapeutic intervention for co-occurring substance abuse that address the underlying emotional and behavioral issues that led to your dependency and addiction. Through medically supervised detoxification, you can free yourself from the physical grips of drugs and alcohol in a comfortable and safe manner. As you break your chemical dependence, you also explore the psychological factors that played a part in your addictive behavior and learn to replace self-destructive impulses with healthy coping skills. Our compassionate clinicians guide you through a comprehensive treatment plan that addresses both your primary mental health disorder and the resultant substance abuse, disrupting the cycle of damaging behavior in a sustainable, holistic way. The nurturing environment at Bridges ensures that you receive the support you need to fully address your emotional and physical health needs and find joy in sobriety.

Contact us for more information about treatment for mental health disorders with co-occurring substance abuse at Bridges To Recovery.