Chemical Dependency vs Addiction: What’s The Difference?

When it comes to substance use disorders, the terms chemical dependency and addiction are frequently used as though they mean the exact same thing. However, this is far from the truth. In reality, having a chemical dependency is usually the first step toward having an addiction. But how do you know if you have a chemical dependency or an addiction—or both?

Below, we walk through the definitions of chemical dependency and addiction and differentiate the characteristics for each. Moreover, you will learn what you can do and where you can go for treatment if you do in fact have one of these conditions. Regardless of what you might be going through, help is out there.

Can You Have Chemical Dependency Without Being Addicted?

gambling addiction

In short, yes: People can have addictions without having a chemical dependency and vice versa. For example, people who are addicted to gambling might not use any alcohol or drugs. Thus, there is no chemical dependency to gambling, but this doesn’t mean that it’s not a real and very serious type of addiction.

Furthermore, you can be chemically dependent upon a substance without having an addiction to it. This is the case for many people who experience chronic pain and must take prescribed opioids for relief. Even when they take the correct dosage as prescribed and even if they do not misuse the pills at all, it’s very likely that their bodies will develop a chemical dependency to the drugs. While this is not an addiction, it does greatly increase the chances of future substance use challenges.

This has to do with the way that opioids interact with nerve receptors that go to the brain. Powerful drugs like opioids—both legally prescribed as well as illegally obtained—can actually change the way that the brain functions. When the brain and body get used to the medication, they begin to become reliant or dependent upon those chemicals. Then, when the chemicals are taken away, the body doesn’t know how to respond and begins to produce harmful, uncomfortable symptoms. This is called withdrawal.


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Withdrawal can happen when the body becomes used to any type of addictive substance, whether that’s prescription opioids, alcohol, or even something as common as caffeine. In the case of opioid withdrawal, however, the symptoms can be life-threatening. This risk goes for alcohol and other types of drug withdrawal as well.

The most frequent symptoms that go alongside opioid or prescription drug withdrawal often include:

  • Worsening mental health symptoms (depression, anxiety, etc.)
  • Body aches
  • Sweating and changes in body temperature
  • Shaking or tremors
  • Convulsions or seizures
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Heart failure

These symptoms can happen with either chemical dependency or a substance use disorder—this is one of the reasons why it’s so hard to tell the two terms apart. Additionally, these withdrawal symptoms also contribute to the risk that someone with a chemical dependency will eventually develop a substance use disorder. After all, when the body goes through such an extreme reaction to missing a dose of a medication, people will often go searching for relief in the wrong places.

What Are the Characteristics of Addiction?

Recently, the criteria changed for defining a chemical dependence as well as a substance use disorder. Though we know that chemical dependency is not the same thing as an addiction, experts in the field don’t make such a clear distinction. Instead, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), anything that has to do with seeking substances such as alcohol or drugs could potentially fall under the category of a substance use disorder if it meets specific criteria.

Some of the criteria to be diagnosed with a substance use disorder includes:

  • Having many unsuccessful attempts to stop using drugs (prescribed or otherwise) or alcohol
  • Using a substance outside of its intended purpose or prescribed dosage
  • Having consuming thoughts about the next time you will use the substance
  • Going through social, financial, and other personal changes that revolve around getting the substance
  • Continued use of the substance despite negative consequences
  • Increased tolerance for the substance, which leads to requiring more to feel its effects
  • Turning to the substance in times of emotional distress
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms

If any of these descriptions sound familiar, you might be struggling with a substance use disorder as well as being chemically dependent upon drugs or alcohol. In these situations, the best course of action is to be evaluated by a mental health or chemical dependency counselor to know the next steps. For most people, treatment for substance abuse can introduce them to a new way of living that is safer, healthier, and, most importantly, happier to experience.

What Does Addiction Treatment Look Like?

chemical dependency therapy

For those in Nevada who are struggling with a substance use disorder or who have a chemical dependency and fear that this is leading them down the path of addiction, there are many treatment options available in the Las Vegas area. One of these treatment facilities is the Vance Johnson Recovery Center.

The Vance Johnson Recovery Center specializes in treating a variety of addictions, including alcohol addiction, meth addiction, opioid addiction, benzo addiction, and more. Plus, there are treatment approaches that focus on helping those with chronic pain heal in a way that gives them relief from both their physical pain and the emotional anguish of addiction.

Not only can you finally give your body and mind the care that they need, but you can also rest assured that you will be safe during the detoxification process. In addition to these opportunities, there are countless other treatment paths that can lead you down the road of recovery. These include but aren’t limited to:

  • Trauma-informed care
  • Substance use disorder counseling
  • Co-occurring challenges therapy
  • Recovery maintenance
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
  • Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT)
  • Group counseling
  • Peer support

Where Can You Get Treatment for Substance Abuse?

Are you ready to face chemical dependency and addiction head on? Reach out to the Vance Johnson Recovery Center by phone at 888-828-2623 or by submitting a confidential contact form for more information about your recovery options. Addiction might start with a chemical dependency, but it ends with safe, supportive, and effective treatment. Get started on your personal healing process today.

Las Vegas Addiction Recovery

Located in dynamic Las Vegas, Nevada, the Vance Johnson Recovery Center (VJRC) a 44-bed facility is run by a skilled multi-disciplinary team of medical and behavioral health professionals that includes nurses, counselors, and doctors, along with complementary and alternative medicine specialists to provide our clients with a transformational experience that encompasses mind, body, and spirit. Our approach is holistic and grounded in research and evidenced-based best practices that help people develop the awareness and skills required to achieve and sustain recovery.

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