Physical addiction vs Psychological addiction

Psychological addiction definition

What is Physical Addiction?

Addictive substances can change chemical levels deep inside the brain. Most of those changes concern chemicals that produce a feeling of pleasure or reward. When those chemical levels are changed, even if they are changed just a little bit at a time, they can produce a new normal for the brain. In time, those brain cells can come to believe that the drug adjustments are the normal state of affairs for the brain, and they will call out for more drugs if none are present.

In addition, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the brain can develop a tolerance to the substance of abuse. Small doses just do not produce the overwhelming sensations the person needs to feel high and rewarded. The person might need to take bigger and bigger doses to have the same happy drug reaction. That tolerance can drive the person to take more drugs or to take drugs more often. It is a hallmark of addiction, and it is caused by a physical change.


People who take in drugs and who try to quit doing so may face yet another problem. When the brain cells are accustomed to a certain amount of drugs and those drugs are gone, the cells can shift to a different level of functioning that now seems strange or chaotic due to the influence of drugs. That shift can cause unpleasant physical changes, and those symptoms are due to drug withdrawal. Medical News Today says withdrawal symptoms can include:

  • Moodiness
  • Depression
  • Anger
  • Frustration
  • Insomnia
  • Constipation or diarrhea
  • Trembling
  • Seizures

Each drug can bring about a different set of withdrawal symptoms, but withdrawal is most definitely caused by physical changes due to drugs. These are not symptoms that arise due to a person’s mindset or opinions. These are physical changes caused by drug damage.

A difficult withdrawal process can serve to make an addiction stronger. Each time a person tries to recover from addiction and faces a roadblock due to a chemical process, that person might become convinced that the drug is too strong and too powerful to be overcome. Even tiny withdrawal symptoms between doses, such as sweating or tearful eyes, could remind people of the very real physical discomfort they will face if they attempt to get sober. That could keep people away from sobriety as a whole. They may feel simply too sick to get well.

Drug damage can also change the way the brain produces emotional responses. According to an article in Psychology Today, brain cells that are accustomed to pumping out huge amounts of pleasure chemicals in response to drugs may no longer produce much of any of those chemicals without drugs. They have been damaged, and they will need time to heal. As they do, the person might feel no pleasure chemicals at all, and that can feel a lot like depression. These people feel different, and they may return to drugs in order to feel better. That is caused by physical damage due to drugs.

That depression can also keep people from enrolling in treatment programs. People who are depressed are convinced that things are bad now and that they will not get better in the future. This is an absence of hope, and it can keep people using drugs. They just may not believe that there is even a remote possibility that they can improve. They do not have the energy to fight, and that is caused by physical damage brought about by addiction.

What is Psychological Addiction?

Just as drugs of abuse can have a significant impact on a person’s body, they can also have a deep impact on the person’s mind. A drug addiction is a habit that gets reinforced through daily repetitions and practice. Each and every repetition can work like a reinforcer, drilling those addictive habits deeper and deeper into the person’s mind and soul. In time, all of those reinforcements can make this a very difficult habit to break.

For example, in research highlighted by Live Science, clinicians found that humans have about 25 different genes that encode for the taste of bitterness on the tongue. People who are missing a few of those receptors, researchers found, were more likely to consider an alcoholic drink pleasant-tasting. That could make drinking alcohol more rewarding for them, and they could develop a psychological habit of drinking alcohol. It tastes good to them, so they drink it. Every choice they make of alcohol over another type of beverage makes this an encoded habit.

In time, that habit can become so encoded that people will feel cravings for their substance of choice when they are faced with things that remind them of that substance. For example, in a study in the journal Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior, researchers showed 26 men and 23 women with a heroin habit photographs of heroin-related paraphernalia, including:

  • Needles
  • Syringes
  • Spoons
  • Aluminum foil
  • Cigarette filters

The people in this study were not given heroin, nor were they asked to be sober before the test started. All of these people felt significant cravings for heroin when they saw those images. Their hearts raced, their blood pressure readings increased, and they felt anxiety. This is a psychological response cued by the images of drug-related objects.

This is something that could happen to anyone in recovery from a drug habit. A person who abuses alcohol could feel a spike when shown ice cubes in a glass. That person could feel a spark of cravings when hearing a liquid poured from a bottle. That person could feel a craving while watching someone else drinking.

People who abuse drugs may feel psychological cravings based on the things they did while they were intoxicated. They may think about the parties they attended, the people they met, or the good times they had. They may think about the times in which they could use drugs recreationally, rather than abusively, and they may wonder if they can get those times back again. They may have a psychological yearning for a past that can never come back again. For people like this, memories are psychological triggers, and those triggers can keep an addiction issue alive.

In addition, some people use substances like a medication or tool. For example, the Anxiety and Depression Association of America suggests that about 15 million people have a social anxiety disorder. To them, spending time with others is deeply disturbing or even worrisome. These people might use alcohol or other relaxing substances as a method to help them deal with social interactions. They cannot handle these things without a jolt of some help, and they get that help through substances.

This form of self-medication is a psychological addiction, as substances of abuse rarely make a mental health issue better. Typically, they make a mental health issue much worse. They distress already damaged brain cells, and that can make things much worse. But people may really believe that the drugs work. They may rely on them, even when they have proof that they do not work. They may refuse to go out and deal with people without drugs.

It does not take a great deal of an addictive substance to trigger the addiction process. People who take in cocaine, for example, can experience such damage with just one hit that they could develop an addiction rather suddenly. Similarly, according to the Community Psychiatric Clinic, men who drink five or more standard drinks in a day and women who drink four or more in a day are considered problem drinkers. These people could also develop addiction issues in time.

Addictions are not simple processes, even though they can develop quickly. In fact, an addiction develops due to a complex interplay between a person’s mind and a person’s body. There are both physical changes and psychological changes involved in an addiction. Both are powerful, and both can be quite damaging.

Source: vol 369 March 24, 2007

Getting Better

People with an addiction can do a great deal of damage to their families. For example, the Center for Substance Abuse Research reports that a person with a heroin addiction can spend up to $200 per day to maintain that addiction. A person spending like that could significantly reduce a family’s finances, and all the while, that person might truly believe that there is no problem that is worth either discussing or solving. The person might be so ensconced in the addiction that the person no longer sees another way to live.

That seems dire, but recovery is possible. That recovery should work on two fronts: the physical and the psychological. Therapies that assist with physical addiction might involve medications, massage, acupuncture, or nutrition. Therapies that assist with psychological addiction might involve meditation, therapy, support group work, and relapse-prevention training. When all of these tools come together, people with addictions really can get better. It can take work, but recovery is very much possible. Those who have addictions should seek out that help now.

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