Addiction is a complex phenomenon that affects millions of individuals worldwide. When it comes to addiction or substance use disorder, the focus is mostly on physical dependence. But what is psychological dependence? Note that this is equally crucial in this context.



What is Psychological Dependence?

Psychological dependence is a form of addiction that results from habitual drug abuse. In this dependence, users rely on drugs to manage their emotions, ultimately leading to compulsive drug use.

The abuse of drugs like psychostimulants, opiates, and alcohol can all lead to psychological dependence. When individuals use these substances, they experience a high feeling that serves as a reward to the brain, which then associates this reward with specific stimuli such as emotions, people, and places. These stimuli serve as cues that promote compulsive drug use.

Symptoms of Psychological Dependence

The symptoms of psychological addiction appear to be more psychological than physical in nature.

  1. Cravings: Individuals suffering from psychological dependence often experience strong cravings that result in compulsive drug use.
  2. Anxiety: Anxiety and fear are common symptoms of this type of dependence. Individuals coming off these substances experience intense anxiety and fear, leading to increased vulnerability and dependence.
  3. Depression: The use of drugs changes brain chemistry, which alters mood and emotion. When individuals stop using these substances, they can experience depression and a lack of motivation.
  4. Insomnia: The abuse of substances like amphetamines can lead to insomnia, which can contribute to intense drug cravings.

what is psychological dependence symptomsOther symptoms include:

  • Irritability and restlessness
  • Changes in appetite
  • Mood swings
  • Uncertainty and denial
  • Obsessive feelings associated with obtaining the drug of choice
  • Issues with problem-solving, concentration, memory and other aspects of judgment

Psychological and physical dependence: The difference

When it comes to addiction, psychological and physical dependence are two terms that are often used interchangeably. However, many critical differences come up between the two.

Physical dependence is all about the body. When an individual develops drug addiction or alcohol abuse, they may experience physical withdrawal symptoms if they stop giving themselves the substance they’ve regularly been using. It refers to the body’s craving for alcohol, drugs, or another addictive substance — the body’s cells cannot function the way they have been without the drug. Painful psychological withdrawal symptoms associated with physical dependence include:

  • Diarrhea
  • Body aches
  • Chills or shakes
  • Nausea
  • Delirium tremens (DTs)
  • Tremors and/or seizures
  • Flu-like symptoms

Causes of Psychological Dependence

Psychological dependence can be caused by different factors, including:

  1. Emotional regulation: Most individuals with psychological dependence have difficulty managing their emotions. They use drugs to regulate their emotions.
  2. Environmental factors: Environmental factors like exposure to drugs or drug users can contribute to this dependence.
  3. Genetic predisposition: Some individuals may be predisposed to psychological dependence due to genetics.

Psychological Dependence vs. Addiction

Knowing the difference between psychological dependence and addiction can be a valuable tool in recovery. Substance dependencies — both physical and psychological — frequently lead to addiction.

what is psychological dependence withdrawalAddiction refers to the combination of both psychological and physical dependence on a substance, object, or activity. In other words, when an individual has developed an addiction, they exhibit a chronic psychological need for a habit-forming substance, along with experiencing the physical effects of dependence.

Addiction, or the compulsive use of a substance like drugs or alcohol, can cause changes in the brain, including areas critical for judgment, decision-making, behavior control, memory, and learning. Addiction can also influence the part of the brain that controls pleasurable feelings, which can create a reward response or psychological dependence on a substance or activity. When the addictive substance is not supplied, an individual who has already formed a psychological dependence will experience physical withdrawal symptoms.

Dependence Without Addiction

While psychological and physical dependence can overlap with addiction (and often do), they can also occur on their own. An example is an individual taking prescription opioids exactly as directed by their physician. Over time, this person may develop a tolerance to the drug, and if they were to stop using the drug abruptly, they would experience physical withdrawal symptoms. This is an example of physical dependence. However, if the person is not engaging in compulsive and reckless drug-seeking behaviors, such as taking more medication than directed or partaking in illegal activities to obtain more opioids, they would not be classified as having an addiction.

It’s possible to have a psychological dependence on a drug without having an addiction, as well. For instance, an individual may have a glass of wine every night when they come home from work. Over time, they may associate this glass of wine with something that helps them relax after a long day. They may even begin to feel that they “need” this glass of wine to relax. If they’re not able to have their nightly glass of wine, they may feel anxious or worried they won’t be able to wind down. This is an example of psychological dependence. However, like the opioid example, if this individual is not engaging in addictive behaviors, such as losing control around alcohol or risking the safety of themselves or others to drink, they would not be seen as having an addiction.

Treatment for Psychological Dependence

Treating purely physical dependence is pretty straightforward. The best approach typically involves working with a professional to either gradually taper off use or stop use altogether while under supervision to manage withdrawal symptoms.

Treating this is a bit more complex. For some folks dealing with both physical and psychological dependence, the psychological side of things sometimes resolves on its own once the physical aspect is treated.

In most cases, though, working with a therapist is the best course for addressing psychological dependence, whether it occurs on its own or alongside physical dependence.

what is psychological dependence counsellingIn therapy, you’ll typically explore patterns that trigger your use and work to create new patterns of thought and behavior. Here are some common treatment methods:

  1. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT helps address the emotional and cognitive issues associated with addiction. Through CBT, individuals learn how to replace unhealthy coping mechanisms with healthy ones.
  2. Mindfulness-based interventions: Mindfulness-based interventions like meditation, yoga, and other mindfulness techniques can help individuals manage stress and anxiety while reducing the risk of substance abuse.
  3. Motivational interviewing: Motivational interviewing is a technique that involves the therapist meeting the individual with understanding and acceptance. The therapist then moves gradually towards discussing the need for change.


Psychological dependence is a severe form of addiction that affects many people worldwide. Effective interventions are essential to helping individuals overcome psychological dependence. By understanding the symptoms and causes of psychological dependence, we can develop appropriate interventions that will ultimately lead to successful recovery.


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