Differences between being ‘physically’ and ‘psychologically’ addicted to drugs

Posted on May 26, 2016 by Addiction Editor

dopaminetransportersTo be truly addicted to a drug, the conventional wisdom goes, you have to be psychologically and physically hooked.

In other words, you have to both crave the drug and feel physically sick — for example, shaky or nauseated — when you can’t get it.

But is this necessarily true?

In her new book, “Unbroken Brain,” science writer Maia Szalavitz argues that the line between these two seemingly separate aspects of addiction is much fuzzier than most of us think.

And keeping up the distinction, while it might seem intuitively appealing, is doing more harm than good. Here’s why:

Our bodies and brains react differently to different types of drugs

First of all, our physical and psychological reactions to drugs aren’t universal across drug types. We don’t respond to depressants like alcohol and heroin the same way we respond to stimulants like cocaine and meth.

When we regularly use a depressant like alcohol, for example, two things tend to happen in our bodies and minds:

  1. We develop a physical tolerance for it, meaning that each time we drink, we need more to achieve the same warm, pleasant feelings.
  2. We experience physical withdrawal when we suddenly stop drinking: we feel nauseated, shaky, or physically ill in other ways. We may also experience psychological withdrawal, meaning we crave or strongly desire to drink again.

Conversely, when we regularly use a stimulant like cocaine, very different things can happen to us physically and psychologically:

  1. We either develop partial tolerance or sensitization: In partial tolerance, we need slightly more of the drug each time to experience the same high. In sensitization, smaller amounts of the drug actually cause more intense effects. This virtually opposite reaction can happen in some regular users.
  2. We tend to go through psychological — but not physical — withdrawal when we suddenly stop using, meaning we might crave or strongly desire to use the drugs again, but not using them won’t make us physically ill. “Stimulant withdrawal doesn’t make you physically ill like heroin or alcohol withdrawal does; nearly all of its signs can be dismissed as ‘psychological’ rather than ‘physical’ and include things like irritability, craving, depression, and sleep disturbances,” Szalavitz writes.

It’s tough to put the signs of addiction into two distinct mind or body categories — and this gets at a bigger problem with the way we view and treat addiction. To read more click here.


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One Response to Differences between being ‘physically’ and ‘psychologically’ addicted to drugs

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