Many people wonder why a loved one struggling with drug or alcohol addiction cannot simply decide to stop using and get sober on their own. In large part, this is because many individuals struggling with drug or alcohol addiction have developed a chemical dependency to the substance in question.

Chemical dependency refers to a person’s physical and/or psychological dependence to drugs or alcohol. When an individual takes drugs or uses alcohol repeatedly over a period of time, the body builds what is known as a tolerance. This means, over time, the affected individual needs to use increasingly larger doses of drugs or alcohol to produce the same desired effects. When the individual with a chemical dependency stops using drugs or alcohol, he or she will experience symptoms of withdrawal.

Chemical Dependency and the Brain

It’s important to recognize that individuals with a chemical dependence to drugs or alcohol have experienced biological changes in their bodies, particularly in their brain. Drugs and alcohol impact the brain’s reward circuit, thereby affecting how much dopamine (one of the “feel good” neurotransmitters) the brain releases. When an individual uses drugs or alcohol, they experience a surge of dopamine. For individuals who abuse drugs or alcohol, over time, their brain adjusts by producing less dopamine. Consequently, many of these people feel depressed, unable to experience joy or pleasure, and feel they need the substance they’ve been abusing to feel “normal.” This creates a vicious cycle of drug or alcohol abuse. The individual keeps using to get a surge of dopamine, which only exacerbates the problem.

Chronic exposure to drugs of abuse disrupts the way critical brain structures interact to control and inhibit behaviors related to drug use. Just as continued abuse may lead to tolerance or the need for higher drug dosages to produce an effect, it may also lead to addiction, which can drive a user to seek out and take drugs compulsively. Drug addiction erodes a person’s self-control and ability to make sound decisions while producing intense impulses to take drugs.

When we view chemical dependency and addiction as a chronic brain disease, it’s easier to approach the addicted individual with compassion rather than judgment. It’s also important to remember that chemical dependency is treatable. Many individuals greatly benefit by detoxing from the substance under the care of medical professionals and maintaining long-term sobriety by working with addiction specialists as part of a drug and alcohol treatment program.

Chemical Dependency Versus Addiction

As mentioned previously, chemical dependency refers to a person’s physical or psychological dependence to drugs or alcohol, typically characterized by experiencing withdrawal once drug or alcohol use has ceased. Addiction, on the other hand, is defined as compulsive drug use despite harmful consequences. This can mean continuing to use drugs despite problems at home, work, or school, experiencing financial or legal problems due to drug or alcohol use, and an inability to stop using drugs or alcohol even if there is desire to quit.

Although it’s common for chemical dependency to go hand-in-hand with addiction, this is not always the case. It’s possible for an individual to be chemically dependent on a drug and not be addicted. For instance, individuals taking certain prescription medications as instructed by a physician may still develop a chemical dependency. This means their body adapts to the drug over time and more is required to achieve the desired effect of the medication. He or she may also experience drug-specific withdrawal symptoms if the medication is abruptly stopped.

With the recent attention on prescription drug abuse, particularly opioid abuse, in the United States, it’s important to understand the difference between physical dependence and addiction.

If you’re concerned that you or a loved one may be transitioning from chemical dependence to an addiction of a prescription drug, speak with an addiction specialist or your primary care doctor. He or she may be able to provide insight on the situation and, if necessary, assist in getting you or loved one help if an addiction is present.

Stage of Chemical Dependency and Addiction

Chemical dependency does not happen overnight. Like with addiction, individuals tend to go through a series of stages of drug or alcohol use before a chemical dependency is present. This is due to the fact that tolerance to the substance and changes in the brain and body typically occur with drug or alcohol use or abuse over a period of time. Knowing and understanding these stages may help you recognize if you or a loved one is in danger of developing a chemical dependency to drugs or alcohol.

Stage One: Initiation and Experimentation

In You may find your teen participating in underage drinking, smoking cigarettes, marijuana, or even abusing prescription or over-the-counter drugs. Some teens experiment, and their use stops there. For others, this can be the first step in a lifelong struggle with substance abuse. Many who have become addicted have started drinking and using drugs as early as 12 years old. Early use is one of the risk factors for addiction.

Stage Two: Regular Use

Experimentation turns to regular use when an individual starts to develop a pattern of drinking or drug use. Examples may include a person starting to always having a drink when they get home from work or using marijuana every night before bedtime. At this point, even if the substance is part of the individual’s daily routine, this does not necessarily indicate addiction.

Stage Three: Substance Abuse

Regular use transitions to substance abuse when individuals start to engage in risky behavior as a result of drugs or alcohol or begins to use drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism. Risky behavior can include driving under the influence or engaging in other illegal activities, becoming violent, or taking part in unsafe or unwanted sexual activity. Using drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism means consistently reaching for drugs or alcohol to avoid difficult emotions such as stress, loneliness, or sadness.

Stage Four: Chemical Dependency

After using or abusing drugs or alcohol for a period of time, you are at risk of developing a chemical dependency. When an individual has built a tolerance to drugs or alcohol (meaning they need to keep taking more of the drug to achieve the desired effect) or experience substance-specific withdrawal symptoms when they stop using the drug, they are considered to have a chemical dependency. As mentioned previously, this does not necessarily indicate an addiction is present, but is a common symptom of addiction.

Stage Five: Addiction

Finally, an individual is considered to have an addiction when he or she compulsively uses drugs or alcohol despite negative consequence. Chemical dependency is typically part of this diagnosis, along with failing to meet family, work, or school obligations, giving up activities once enjoyed to spend time getting drunk/high, and being unable to stop using drugs or alcohol even if they want to.

Chemical dependency and addiction are treatable—and the earlier one gets help, the more likely they are to be successful in the recovery process. If you’re concerned that you or a loved one has developed a chemical dependency or addiction to drugs or alcohol, it’s helpful to educate yourself on what treatment options may be available.


Detox and Withdrawal Process

When entering treatment with a chemical dependency, the first step will be going through detoxification. During this time, the individual will withdraw from the drug and allow the substance to completely clear out of his or her system. This process is typically accompanied by drug-specific withdrawal symptoms, many of which can be uncomfortable and in some cases even life-threatening. Consequently, it can be extremely advantageous for the individual to undergo detoxification under the care of medical professionals.

In a medically-monitored detoxification setting, individuals are able to withdraw from the substance in a safe environment and typically can be given medication to ease withdrawal symptoms. The severity of withdrawal symptoms varies based on the type of drug and length of time the drug was abused. However, when undergoing medically managed withdrawal, health professionals who have knowledge of chemical dependency and addiction can individualize care based on the patient’s needs during the withdrawal process.

Since one reason people may be apprehensive to give up drugs or alcohol is fear of withdrawal, knowing their health will be monitored and the severity of their withdrawal symptom can be lessened may help ease their fears about entering treatment.

Ongoing Treatment

Detoxification is only the first step on the road to recovery. After detoxing, the majority of individuals will require ongoing treatment, typically as part of an inpatient or outpatient treatment program. In these settings, individuals have a chance to explore their individual reasoning for turning to drugs or alcohol, learn healthy coping mechanisms for dealing with stress and negative emotions, and work with a case manager to set-up healthy support systems during and after treatment.

At Nexus, some aspects of our program include:

  • Individual and group therapy
  • Family therapy
  • Case management
  • 12-step groups
  • Spiritual counseling
  • Nutritional therapy
  • Integrative treatment options such as acupuncture
  • Aftercare planning

Once individuals graduate from inpatient and/or outpatient treatment, many continue to engage with addiction support groups. The most widely recognized are 12-step groups like Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous. However there are several of non-12 step options available, as well, such as SMART Recovery and Secular Organizations for Sobriety.

Choosing the Right Treatment Facility

Treatment for chemical dependency is not one-size fits all. The best treatment options may vary depending on the type of drug(s) an individual has been using, the length of time he or she has been abusing drugs or alcohol, any underlying mental health disorders, and individual personality traits.

Consequently, finding a treatment program that provides individualized care and can tailor treatment to each person’s individual wants and needs may be critical to the affected individual maintaining long-term sobriety.

If you’re concerned that you or a loved one has developed a chemical dependency or addiction to drugs or alcohol, contact us today to speak with one of our recovery advisors. We can help you review your treatment options, discuss intervention possibilities, and help you or your loved one take the first steps on the road to recovery.


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