Dependence vs addiction are terms that are often used interchangeably. Does this mean that they are the same thing then? Well, that depends on who you ask. The scientific community has adopted the phrase “substance use disorder” — and its popularity is taking off — as a way of clarifying the complexities that lurk behind the disease. However, there is still a great deal of confusion.

Dependence Vs Addiction: What’s The Difference?

For some people, there is no difference between the two terms in the dependence vs addiction debate. For others, though, dependence often means that a person is physically dependent on a substance such as nicotine, heroin, alcohol, or crystal meth.


The best way to tell if a person is dependent on a substance is that they are tolerant of it. That is, their body needs more in order to reach the same high that they previously felt. Another key element of dependence is that the person suffers from withdrawal symptoms when they try to stop taking the substance.

It’s important to note that a person can be dependent on a substance without being addicted to it. However, dependence is often the last step before addiction takes over.

In addition to being physical, dependence can also be mental. In contrast to physical dependence in which your body craves the substance because it is unable to give you the same feelings naturally any longer.

Triggers are events or feelings that can signal a mental dependence on a substance. When a person who is mentally dependent on a substance experiences a trigger, it can spur a strong desire to use drugs and/or alcohol.

When a person is triggered by an event, smell, sound, or sight, they could experience a variety of symptoms. These include anxiety, stomach tightness, an intense desire or craving to use, nervousness, or a need to get high or use alcohol.


Continued substance use and abuse over time causes biochemical changes in the brain. These can lead to behavioral changes that often mark addiction.

A telltale sign that a person is addicted to a substance is that obtaining more and more of that substance is their primary focus. This mindset is evident regardless of the consequences or harm that might come to themselves, their family members, or others around them.

When the person is not able to get the substance their body and mind demands, expect them to act in an irrational manner. This can lead to dangerous situations, criminal behavior, and other detrimental actions that severely test the relationships the person has with other people.

The APA’s Stance

The American Psychological Association (APA) is the organization behind the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM). With its fifth edition, the APA sought to clarify the difference between dependence vs addiction. For this reason, they dropped the terms, “substance use” and “substance dependence.”

Instead, they opted for the less confusing term of substance use disorder. While previously, substance abuse was considered a mild form of addiction and dependence was more moderate or severe, this has changed now.

Today, under the umbrella term of “substance use disorder,” the APA classifies the severity of the disease as either mild, moderate, or severe. This more inclusive method of defining an addiction is designed to be less confusing.

Find Help Today with Serenity Light Recovery

Serenity Light Recovery has a breadth of experience, knowledge, and expertise in substance use disorders. We work closely with each individual to create a treatment plan tailored to their own needs. Serenity Light Recovery strives to maintain a peaceful, relaxing, and supportive environment. Learn more about what makes our Texas treatment center different by calling us at (281) 431-6700 today.