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What Is the Difference Between Physical and Psychological Addiction?

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In our continuing efforts to understand how and why addiction happens, many people want to know the difference between physical and psychological addiction.  This is due in part to the distinctions raised in articles about detox and rehab.  

From a treatment viewpoint, detox treats the physical addiction while rehab addresses the psychological aspects of the drug use. However, this is not to say that there is a clear-cut difference between the two.  Most people who suffer from substance use disorders display physical and mental symptoms simultaneously.  So, they require a combination of professional detox and rehab to achieve lasting sobriety.

What Are the Different Physical and Mental Symptoms?

Physical and Psychological AddictionWith most drugs of abuse, both physical and psychological symptoms are present. Their addiction is often accompanied by a mental disorder. The co-occurring disorders are referred to as dual-diagnosis, thus adding to the confusion about whether there is a difference between physical and psychological addiction.

Here is a breakdown of the different physical and psychological symptoms experienced by someone with a SUD that will hopefully provide some clarity. 

Signs of a Physical Addiction

Each person responds differently to the effects of addictive substances.  But, some signs of physical addiction are common regardless.  The signs may include:

  • Dilated pupils, red eyes
  • Sudden weight changes
  • Excessive sniffing, runny nose
  • Lack of personal hygiene
  • Hyperactivity
  • Dysphoria
  • Repetitive speech patterns

While most of these signs can be attributed to an illness such as cold or flu, they should not be discounted entirely.

Withdrawal Symptoms Associated With Physical Addiction

Addictive substances affect the way cells in the body function.  With prolonged use of drugs or alcohol, the body adapts to the substance.  If the drug is withheld, painful withdrawal symptoms kick in, prompting the person to seek more of the substance to calm the symptoms.  

Typical physical withdrawal symptoms will include:

  • Body aches and pain
  • Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea
  • Shakes, chills, or sweating
  • Delirium tremens (DTs)
  • Seizures

The duration of the withdrawal symptoms varies with the substance involved and the severity of the addiction.  In most cases, the symptoms last for 4 to 10 days.  However, with some drugs, intermittent symptoms may persist for months or years.

Signs of Psychological Addiction

Depending on the drug, some signs of psychological addiction may include: 

  • Defensiveness, denial, rationalizing
  • Loss of interest in activities
  • Easily confused
  • Depression
  • Cognitive decline
  • Poor memory
  • Inability to deal with stress

The signs of psychological addiction are often overlooked and can be attributed to stress, overwork, or relationship issues.  But, just as with physical signs of addiction, these psychological signs may be a warning signal.

Symptoms Associated With Psychological Addiction

Psychological addiction is the result of a perceived need for a substance.  For instance, a person who used sleep aids regularly will think they can’t possibly get to sleep without the drug

Psychological addiction can occur without any outward signs of physical dependency.  Some drugs don’t cause severe physical withdrawal symptoms, but emotional compulsion keeps the person seeking more of the substance.  

Psychological withdrawal symptoms may include:

  • Extreme irritability, anxiety
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Depression
  • Restlessness
  • Sense of hopelessness
  • Craving for the substance

These symptoms can also appear with non-drug addictions such as compulsive shopping or gambling. 

Behavioral Signs of Addiction

In addition to the physical and psychological signs of addiction, many people display changes in behavior related to their substance use.  The signs may include:

  • Missing work or school
  • Secretive behavior
  • Social isolation
  • Sleep problems
  • Relationship issues
  • Financial or legal problems

All substances of abuse are associated with psychological and physical aspects of dependence.  However, some substances primarily cause psychological symptoms.   

Substances That Cause Physical Addiction

The substances associated with strong physical addiction include alcohol, opioids, benzodiazepines, and barbiturates.

Substances That Cause Psychological Addiction

The substances that typically cause psychological symptoms are stimulants, hallucinogens, cannabis, inhalants, and psychotropic medications.

Treatment for Physical and Psychological Addiction at Design for Change Recovery

The difference between physical and psychological addiction is irrelevant when it comes to treatment. Whether a person is suffering from physical or psychological addiction, they will need professional treatment to regain control of their lives.  

At Design for Change Recovery, we offer a comprehensive, evidence-based program that seeks to heal the whole person.  We help clients overcome the physical, psychological, and spiritual factors that contributed to their substance use.  

While in our facility you will participate in various classes, activities, and counseling sessions daily. The programs are designed to help you understand the underlying causes of addiction and develop effective coping skills to avoid going down that path again.

We will customize a treatment plan that is right for your unique situation. You’ll feel nurtured in our calm, comforting atmosphere and our compassionate staff and counselors will ensure that all of your needs are met.  If you are ready to begin your recovery journey, contact us at our Lancaster, CA facility today.


Sources: – Substance Use, Abuse, and Addiction

What is the Difference Between Physical and Psychological Addiction?