What is Physical Dependence on a Drug Like?

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Addiction is often described in terms of psychological and physical dependence, along with aberrant or self-defeating behaviors. In this post, we’re going to focus on the physical impact of substance abuse and addiction.

What is the Meaning of Physical Dependence?

Physical dependence refers to the effects that addictive substances can have on a person’s body. Ironically, the most common signs of physical dependence occur when a person has not been using the substance that they have become dependent upon.

When an individual develops a substance use disorder (which is the clinical term for addiction), their body adapts to the presence of the drug that they have been abusing. When the individual cannot acquire and use the drug, or when they try to abruptly end their drug use, they may experience a variety of distressing physical symptoms.

This experience is known as withdrawal, and it is evidence that a person has developed physical dependence. 

Symptoms of Physical Dependence on a Drug

The symptoms of physical dependence can be influenced by several factors, such as the following:

  • The individual’s age, weight, and metabolism
  • Which substance they have become addicted to
  • The amount of the substance they have been using
  • How long they have been addicted to the substance


Depending on these and other factors, physical dependence may manifest via signs and symptoms such as these:

  • Headaches
  • Stomach aches
  • Severe abdominal cramping
  • Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea
  • Watery eyes and runny nose
  • Fever and/or chills
  • Excessive perspiration
  • Cold, clammy skin
  • Pain in muscles and bones
  • Tics, tremors, and trembling
  • Tingling in the hands and feet
  • Seizure


Although many signs of physical dependence can be extremely painful, they do not typically represent a serious threat to a person’s life. However, in the case of severe alcohol addiction, physical dependence can be fatal if a person doesn’t receive appropriate professional care while going through withdrawal.

Of course, a person does not need to have developed a serious alcohol addiction in order to benefit from professional treatment, as we will discuss in greater detail a bit later in this post.

Woman experiencing physical dependence to the drug she is taking

Dangers of Becoming Physically Dependent on a Drug

The primary danger of becoming physically dependent on a drug is that you can become trapped in a downward spiral of compulsive substance abuse. This continued substance abuse can, in turn, expose you to dangers such as the following:

  • Difficulties in your relationships with friends, family members, and colleagues
  • Substandard performance in school or at work
  • Failing to make progress toward a diploma or degree
  • Being fired and finding it difficult to get another job
  • Incurring physical injuries due to actions while under the influence of substances
  • Malnutrition and other medical problems due to poor self-care
  • The onset or worsening of a co-occurring mental health concern
  • Polysubstance abuse, which can increase the likelihood of catastrophic harm
  • Being arrested, fined, or jailed
  • Overwhelming financial problems
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Overdose
  • Death

What is the Difference Between Physical and Psychological Dependence?

As we have discussed in the previous few sections, physical dependence can have a profound negative impact on your health and your life. But the physical component is just one part of addiction.

Most types of drug addiction also involve psychological dependence. This term refers to the mental and emotional factors that can compel you to continue abusing alcohol or other dangerous substances.

Examples of psychological dependence include the following:

  • Being unable to celebrate successes or cope with setbacks without using substances
  • Prioritizing substance abuse over your personal or professional responsibilities
  • Developing powerful cravings for the drug that you have become dependent on
  • Finding it impossible to feel joy or experience pleasure without using substances
  • Experiencing symptoms of anxiety, panic, paranoia, or depression when you are unable to acquire and use the substance that you have become addicted to

What to Do if You Become Physically or Psychologically Dependent on a Drug?

Addiction can be an isolating experience. When your life has been undermined by overwhelming compulsions and self-defeating urges, you may feel like no one could possibly understand what you are going through, or care enough to help.

The truth is that help is available, treatment works, and a more hopeful future may be much closer than you realize. But first, you need to take an essential step: You need to ask for help.

This can take many forms. You may begin by talking to a close friend or trusted family member. Unless this person is a qualified addiction treatment professional, they may not be able to help you end your substance abuse. But they can be a vital source of understanding and motivation as you seek the right source of care.

If you have a family doctor or a primary healthcare provider, they may be able to assess your needs and refer you to an appropriate treatment provider. Also, many reputable drug treatment programs – such as Renewal Health Group – offer free assessments as well as recommendations for the type and level of care that will best meet your needs.

Contact Our Drug Treatment Center in Los Angeles, California

Renewal Health Group is a trusted source of comprehensive addiction treatment services for adults. Our drug treatment center in Los Angeles, California, offers an array of programming options, including detox, residential rehab, and multiple levels of outpatient care. In every program, you can expect to receive personalized services from a team of dedicated professionals who truly care about you. 

When you are ready to start living a healthier life, the Renewal Health Group team is here for you. For more about our services, or to schedule a free assessment, please visit our Contact page or call us today.

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