The Difference Between Physical and Psychological Addiction

physical psychological addiction

Last Updated on November 22, 2023 by REVIVE Recovery and Detox Services

Psychological addiction vs physical addiction.

Statistics show that 21 million Americans are addicted to one or more substances.

These figures reveal that while addiction can feel like a lonely place, this is something thousands of us battle.

Overcoming addiction is possibly one of the hardest, yet most worthwhile things one can do. This explains why so many recovered addicts go on to achieve incredible successes. Once tapped into, reserves of inner strength can transform your life.

However, along with leveraging inner strength and resolve, you also need to understand addiction to be equipped to get the better of it.

Psychological and physical addiction both work to influence addiction as a whole. While they are separate in some ways, they also overlap in many areas.

Understanding the differences between psychological addiction and physical addiction can help you to gain a deeper insight into your own dependance and how to successfully fight it.

Continue reading to find out whether you are experiencing one or both of these two subsections of addiction, and how to combat them.

Psychological Addiction

Psychological addiction is classified as the mental addiction process which has an effect on the neurotransmitters and receptors within the brain.

For example, when a person administers a substance that alters brain chemistry this in turn results in changes to the brain. Cocaine, for instance, increases the levels of the natural neurotransmitter dopamine.

Over time, exposure to cocaine causes the brain to adjust to the artificially heightened levels of dopamine, becoming less sensitive to it.

This results in a psychological addiction where one experiences cravings prompted by this change, and the need for dopamine levels to be controlled by a substance, rather than by the brain itself.

Although psychological addiction is triggered by substances that alter brain chemicals, they can also be brought on by behaviors. Gambling, gaming, and online addictions are all examples of psychological addictions where no brain-altering substances are present.

The reason for this is that dopamine forms part of the brain’s action-reward feedback loop. When a certain action is taken that stimulates dopamine release, such as playing slots, this trains the brain to seek out the same activity again in order to experience the dopamine surge. Research shows that the more times this action gets played out, the higher the quantity of dopamine released, which reinforces the action-reward loop—and with that the addiction.

With many drugs, psychological addiction can be caused by both of these elements. Neurochemical adaptation and changes in action-reward feedback loops. Smoking, for instance, influences dopamine levels. However, it also causes a positive feedback loop around the act of smoking according to researchers.

As you can see, psychological dependance is complex. While some cravings you might experience come from a neurochemical dependence, a part of these might also be activated by the associated action-reward loops you have developed.

The Signs

Psychological addiction is usually characterized by alterations in behavior in response to cravings. For example, a smoker will go to abnormal lengths to have a cigarette. Sometimes even breaking the law to do so, such as by smoking in airplane toilets.

Coffee addicts will risk being late for work to pick up a latte, and victims to meth addiction may prioritize buying meth over all other needs.

Along with altered behavior, psychological addiction is also characterized by mood swings and dangerous behavior.

The Withdrawal Symptoms

The withdrawal symptom from psychological dependance is characterized by cravings as well as mental effects such as depression, mood swings, irritability, and frustration.

During withdrawal, triggers are also common. It is highly helpful for patients to be able to identify these triggers so that they can take a mental step back and know when and how cravings are being sparked.

Physical Addiction

Physical addiction is also characterized by the body becoming dependant on a certain substance. This is similar to the way in which the brain becomes dependant on substances for neurochemical modulation.

From this sense, much of what is thought of as psychological addiction is physical as well. Because of this, there is quite a bit of overlap between the two categories of addiction.

Physical dependence occurs when the body has reacted to substance use by modifying its own chemistry to accommodate this. When the substance is not taken, the body then goes into withdrawal, as it cannot maintain its balance without the drug or substance.

Alcohol, for example, is a system suppressant. It slows down brain function and reactions. To compensate for this, when continuous, high amounts of alcohol are consumed, the body adjusts into a ‘keyed-up’ state.

When the person does not take in alcohol, the body remains in this hyper-alert/tense state. This causes a craving for alcohol in order to restore feelings of calm, as well as balance in the body.

The Signs

If you are under the effects of physical addiction you might experience similar signs as of those for psychological addiction. These include—in between substance use—irritability, mood swings, etc.

However, at the same time, you will likely also be prey to physical reactions, such as nausea skinniness, or sweating, if you go for extended periods without substance administration.

The Withdrawal Symptoms

The withdrawal symptoms from physical addictions can vary. Different drug dependencies cause different withdrawal symptoms.

Alcohol, for instance, often causes withdrawal symptoms that include:

  • Shakiness
  • Sweating
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Elevated heart rate
  • Headaches
  • Insomnia
  • Seizures

Opiates on the other hand cause withdrawal symptoms that include the following:

  • Pain
  • Body aches
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Stomach pain
  • Fatigue
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Fever/chills
  • Diarrhea

Withdrawal symptoms from physical dependence can often be managed by professionals. Through the administration of counteractive medication, physical addiction withdrawal symptoms can be minimized.

In some cases, this treatment is vital. During alcohol withdrawal, people are at risk of seizures which can be life-threatening. Therefore it is crucial that those seeking to come off of a high alcohol intake do this under medical supervision.

Distinguishing Between Physical and Psychological Addiction and Keys to Overcoming Them

As mentioned above, physical addiction and psychological addiction overlap in many ways.

By understanding the two elements of addiction and their effects, one is better able to observe what is happening. This can make fighting cravings and withdrawal symptoms that much easier.

Do not forget that physical addiction and psychological addiction have a lot of common ground. Psychological addiction is rooted in the brain and its chemistry. Therefore, much psychological addiction is also a form of physical dependency.

At the same time, psychological addiction is that much more underhanded an enemy. It contains the power of the prehistoric action-reward feedback loops that we are wired with.

Fortunately, feedback loops can be changed. According to research, it can take as little as three months to form a new brain map, equal in complexity to an old one. While the old one will still exist, with will power you can reinforce new feed-back loops that can take over from the old.

In the case of addiction, this can often look like forming new habits to crowd out the old. If you have studied people who were ex-addicts, you might notice that many of them take up fitness.

The positive feedback loop that a habit like training creates can be very helpful in distracting the brain from an old addiction-related feedback loop.

When it comes to physical addiction, withdrawal can be harsher. However, the effects are much more short term. The key to overcoming these is to seek the assistance of trained medical experts. This will ensure your safety and possibly reduce the severity of symptoms.

Psychological addiction also requires trained intervention. However, this section of addiction will require a lot more long-term mental work on your part to overcome.

Drug Types That Commonly Cause Physical Addition

To help you ascertain what part of your addiction is fueled by physical addiction, here is a list of the different substance types that cause physical addition:

  • Alcohol
  • Barbiturates (eg. phenobarbital, sodium thiopental and secobarbital)
  • Benzodiazepines (eg. Valium, Ativan, and Xanax)
  • Nonbenzodiazepine hypnotics (z-drugs)
  • Nicotine
  • Antiepileptic drugs
  • Antipsychotic drugs
  • Antidepressants
  • Blood pressure medications
  • Androgenic-anabolic steroids

These are just a few of the main types.

Drug Types That Cause Psychological Addition

Psychological addictions are often most associated with uppers, such as:

  • Cocaine
  • Ritalin
  • LSD
  • Speed
  • Methamphetamine
  • Ketamine
  • PCP
  • Cannabis

Take note that this list is by no means complete, and many of the drugs that cause physical dependency trigger psychological addiction as well. Two examples of this are alcohol and nicotine.

How to Start Combatting Physical and Psychological Addiction

Understanding the characteristics of physical and psychological addiction is one of the first steps to fighting addiction as a whole. Once you have some insight into what is going on in your body, the next step is to create a plan of action for reversing the addiction.

Believe in Yourself

The very first thing you will need to do is believe in yourself. Getting sober can seem like a mammoth challenge—and yet it is possible. We are witness to this!

Believing in your self is one of the keys to opening up to the possibility that you can, and will, kick the addiction.

This might sound a little wishy-washy when faced with the serious battle of substance dependence. But, think about it like this.

Imagine a friend or family member of yours was trying to get clean. Would you tell them things like “Oh, you’ll never do it, you don’t have enough resolve”?

No. Of course you wouldn’t. You would give them every encouragement possible.

So, do this for yourself. Avoid negative self-talk, and begin by giving yourself the moral support you deserve.

Look for Sources of Motivation

If substance use is a part of your lifestyle, it can be hard to picture a fulfilling life without it. One of the ways to shift this perspective is to look for sources of motivation to get sober.

These could be motivational podcasts, biographies, interviews, etc.

Source Help You Can Trust

When starting the road to beating addiction, it is vital that you seek out help.

Firstly, it is crucial that you undergo medical supervision when doing a drug detox. This ensures that physical withdrawal symptoms happen in a safe and controlled environment.

Just as importantly, you need to address the psychological withdrawal. This is something you will need to work on yourself. However, the best approach is to combine proactive self-work along with counseling and coaching sessions.

When sourcing help, it is also critical that you choose a facility or service that you feel you can trust. It should also have an atmosphere that appeals to you, and staff that you like.

Find Replacement Habits That You Want to Establish

Before you begin treatment, you might want to start thinking about what habits you would like to replace substance use with.

According to research presented in this TED talk, one of the largest drivers of addiction is the absence of enjoyable things to do, social connections, and general quality of life.

While it might not be possible to fix all of these areas in one go, you can make a start. One of the easiest places to start is by settling on a hobby or activity to take up. This could be something that you have always wanted to do, or it could be something completely new that comes your way.

Whatever it is, do no procrastinate, start as soon as possible.

Remind Yourself That Life Still Has a Lot to Offer

The idea of giving up one’s substance of choice can make the rest of life seem pointless and drab. However, in many cases, substance dependence can actually rob us of incredible experiences and life events.

Keep reminding yourself that life has unlimited amounts of things to offer. None of us know what is around the corner, which makes the ride all the more fun.

Getting sober/clean does mean the end of fun and good times. In fact, it might just be the beginning.


Lastly, once you have made the decision to fight your addiction, commit to it. Live it, start making it a part of your identity, and before you know it you will be on the road to success in your recovery.

Do Not Delay Your Treatment

After committing to getting rid of your addiction, you need to take action. Do not delay seeking out treatment. This can easily lead to a cycle of endless procrastination, and with that self-doubt.

If you have made the decision to begin waging your fight against physical and psychological addiction, we invite you to come and see us Revive Detox. We are a team of health professionals, committed to making your drug detox as easy as possible.

We are very happy to be able to say that our staff and programs enjoy higher than average success rates with clients achieving long-term recovery.

Browse our programs, or contact us today, we are happy to answer any and all questions.