Understanding Drug and Alcohol Abuse vs. Dependence


The use of addictive substances, illegal or otherwise, is often discussed in terms of one’s dependency or need for the drug. “Abuse” and “dependence” are two terms that are frequently used to describe the stages of one’s need for alcohol or drugs. Often, they are easily confused, but they are not interchangeable and should not be mistaken as the same. Anyone who is concerned about a loved one’s use of these substances must understand the difference between the two words and how they apply to the individual in need of assistance. At a facility such as White Sands Treatment Center, determining whether someone has a problem with substance abuse or dependence helps our highly qualified staff to determine and design a treatment plan that is customized to meet their specific needs.

When it comes to alcohol abuse vs. dependence, the first step is to understand what these terms mean. Although the words “substance abuse” and “substance dependence” are still used to describe one’s relationship with alcohol or drugs, they are no longer technically considered a diagnosis according to the American Psychiatric Association and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5). Currently, both terms have been combined under the definition of “substance use disorder.”

In order to meet the substance abuse disorder definition, a person’s use of a drug must continue regardless of the fact that it interferes with their life in a harmful way. A person is traditionally considered to be a substance abuser if their habits result in negative situations or problems more than once within a one-year time period. These situations may include alcohol-related arguments with one’s spouse or significant other, participation in reckless activities and behaviors while under the influence, missed work or school, or getting into trouble with the law. But an alcohol abuser has the ability to stop or reduce this behavior, although they may not wish to.

Dependency differs from abuse in that the user will find that they cannot stop using their drug of choice, nor can they stick to limits on how much they take or drink. They are unable to stop this behavior even when it is not safe or it is causing serious issues in their life, including health problems. At this point, the person has a physical dependence. A person suffers from a physical dependence or physical addiction to a substance because their bodies have built up a tolerance to it. This tolerance leads to an increased need for the substance and physical addiction or dependence. Tolerance to a drug and experiencing withdrawal symptoms without it are all included in the physical addiction definition. Withdrawal occurs when a person attempts to quit using the substance. The withdrawal symptoms associated with physical addiction can be either physical or psychological.

Get help and get sober starting with a phone call to White Sands Treatment Center. We are a private and accredited recovery center that offers detox and a variety of customized rehabilitation programs, including dual-diagnosis treatment. Following an individualized assessment, we will create a personalized plan to best treat your abuse of or dependence on drugs or alcohol. To speak with a recovery specialist, contact us using our toll-free number or fill out the form for a call back.