Some view drug abuse and dependency as being different points on a continuum of addiction because abuse often precedes dependency. However, often is not always. People can and do become dependent on a drug without ongoing, overt, classically defined abuse. Others can and do abuse drugs without becoming dependent on drugs. That’s why it’s important to be able to define, differentiate and spot drug abuse and dependency, whether as a user, concerned family member, or treatment professional.

The Classic Definition of Drug Abuse

Drug abuse is classically defined as using a substance in a volume and frequency that yields negative consequences. There is a difference between recreational use that doesn’t cause problems in a person’s life and use that creates problems. Common problems associated with drug abuse include arrest, loss of employment, financial problems, neglect of children and other family responsibilities and injury to self or others caused by being under the influence of the drug. People who abuse drugs can find themselves in all sorts of unpleasant and dangerous situations directly related to obtaining and using drugs.

Dependency Is Different

Dependency is when a person becomes physically or psychologically addicted to a drug, experiencing withdrawal symptoms and an inability to function normally without the drug. Physical dependency is typically fairly easy to define and identify, such as the nausea, diarrhea and muscle pain heroin users can experience when withdrawing. Other things like fatigue, fever, and sweating that methamphetamine users experience when withdrawing are equally hard to deal with.

Psychological dependence is a bit more difficult to identify due to its complexity. Studying addiction treatment or doing the coursework involved in earning an online social work master’s degree can provide a more in-depth understanding of the psychological mechanisms involved in dependency. However, for general purposes, psychological dependency occurs when a person believes that they cannot function normally or the way they want to without using the drug, such as the shy person who depends on cocaine to be the life of the party at social gatherings.

Dependency Can Happen Without Abuse

While abuse is often the path to dependency, a person can become dependent without routine abuse, such as the person who uses pain pills to go to sleep at night or regularly uses amphetamines to have the energy to work overtime hours or a second job. They may not use at levels that lead to arrest or overdose, but they still run the risk of becoming drug dependent, something that can lead to dangerous health problems.

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