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Should We Label Addiction as Physical or Psychological?

Should We Label Addiction as Physical or Psychological?

When people talk about the true nature of addiction, there is often a debate between whether addiction it purely a psychological ailment, or a physical abnormality. Stigma informs the idea that addiction is a moral failing, or a weakness of character. However, decades of research in various fields of study inform the designation that addiction is a disease. Yet, even then we have those who put more focus on either the physical or mental aspect. This kind of mentality promotes the idea that physical addiction and psychological addiction are more separate than they actually are.

What if instead of saying addiction is physical or psychological, we talk more about how one element influences the other. After all, if we get right down to it, the brain is part of the body. Therefore, psychological addictions also have a physical impact. Or is it the other way around?

Defining Physical Dependence

One facet of this debate has to do with distinguishing the difference between physical withdrawal symptoms and physiological dependence. Of course, powerful substances have chemical hooks in that create an imbalance in the body. Overtime, this causes a physical dependence that brings terrible withdrawal symptoms when the body goes without the substance. Examples of these drugs include:

As a result, our old idea of what addiction was asserted that physical withdrawal syndrome was the primary reason people go back to drugs. Therefore, if the physical symptoms could be addressed, the addiction would be defeated. This was called the Tolerance-withdrawal addiction theory. Eventually, the Tolerance-withdrawal theory was disproved for two reasons.

Firstly, substances that don’t display devastating physical withdrawals, such as those from opioids, are still addictive. Despite the absence of overwhelming physical symptoms, users still relapse. One example of this includes cocaine addiction.

Second, even after overcoming difficult withdrawal symptoms, people still go back to using drugs. This means they did not only use to relieve their physical discomfort from being without the substance.

People often claim marijuana cannot possibly be physically addictive because it does not produce horrible withdrawal symptoms like heroin. However, marijuana withdrawal does exist. These withdrawal symptoms may not be as intense as delirium tremens for chronic alcoholics, or  flu-like symptoms from opioids, but they are real. Long-term marijuana users who quit often describe feeling symptoms such as:

Numerous other drugs like cocaine, methamphetamine, nicotine have a similar effect. Anyone who has tried to quit smoking cigarettes can tell you that even though they are not dope sick, there is still a degree of physical dependence. Surely, these degrees vary depending on the drug.

Why Do We Withdrawal?

To clarify, withdrawal symptoms occur because the body is attempting to counteract the absence of the chemicals that drugs activate or introduce into the body. Again, tolerance is built by the body adjusts to chronic drug use. Subsequently, withdrawal occurs as the chemicals are taken away from the body and it has to rapidly adjust to the absence.

For example, drugs often create an uptick in dopamine in the brain. So what does the body do to adapt? It starts producing less dopamine on its own and gets rid of dopamine receptors. Later, when the body stops ingesting the drug, the extra dopamine flow stops. Meanwhile, the brain is not producing the same amounts of dopamine to meet its needs. Suddenly the body must compensate for the production of dopamine, and additional receptors must be inserted.

Dopamine is a “pleasure” neurotransmitter in the brain. With low levels of dopamine during withdrawal, many people may experience what is called anhedonia. This is essentially the inability to take pleasure in things that would normally be pleasurable. The process is similar with various other chemicals in the body. It takes time and consistency to build up a tolerance. Likewise, it takes time and consistent support to overcome the withdrawals.

The connection between the mind and the body is already well documented at this point. There are years worth of evidence showing how changes in the body impact the mind. For instance, we know certain foods can boost brain functioning or other processes. Furthermore, research also shows how mental stressors like anxiety and trauma can manifest physically. So if someone is consuming a product that changes the chemistry of their body, it is likewise changing their mind. These kinds of symbiotic symptoms are the building blocks to a substance use disorder.

The Language of Addiction

If we are going to define addiction by how drugs impact the body, we also have to understand the implications of the language we use. For instance, we should be able to seperate the meaning of key terms like:

While it is true that they are all related, they are not exactly the same. Building a tolerance sets a precedence for developing withdrawal symptoms, but those symptoms are not the only defining feature of an addiction.

In other words, the relationship between these terms is key to understanding addiction. However, the subtle differences do matter. Tolerance alone does not define addiction. Neither does withdrawal, regardless of if the symptoms are physical or psychological. The true nature of addiction includes the development of physical and psychological dependence, as well as compulsive and obsessive behavior. Moreover, the truth is that all of these aspects contribute to a deeply complex condition.

In the end, when we take all this in, we see that addiction is as both a psychological and physical. If for no other reason than because our mind exists within our brain, which is a physical part of the body. As far as we know, the two cannot exist completely separate from each other. Therefore, addiction is psychological AND physical. People should not feel their addiction is any less or more serious if their struggling in one way more than the other. At the end of the day,  if a compulsive behavior is influencing your life to the point where you or those around you are suffering, then you deserve to get help. If you or someone you love is struggling, please call toll-free now 1-800-755-9588.

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