Chemical Dependency VS. Substance Abuse

Chemical Dependency VS. Substance Abuse

Prescription Drugs Spilling Out of Bottle

Addiction is dynamic, and the multiple layers of physical, psychological and social consequences make it difficult to treat with a generic approach. Every person who experiences a substance use disorder is different, and they need hands-on, personalized care to help them untangle the various knots tying addiction into their life.

Although chemical dependency and substance abuse are often used synonymously, they are two different concepts that are important to distinguish when looking for treatment.

Defining Substance Abuse

The difference between substance use, substance misuse and substance abuse ultimately defines whether or not someone has a diagnosable problem. Regular substance use includes smoking and social drinking; people do not have any trouble controlling their intake and it does not negatively impact their ability to function.

Substance misuse occurs prior to abuse; people begin consuming too much of a controlled substance, or they begin turning to illegal drugs to self-medicate. People may experience physical and mental side-effects when they try to reduce or stop their consumption.

Finally, substance abuse is an ongoing pattern of drug or alcohol consumption that affects a person’s ability to function. Substance abuse ranges from mild to severe and impacts everything from a person’s physical and mental health to their relationships and ability to maintain a job.

What is a Chemical Dependency

Treating substance abuse is largely a psychological task; it requires educating people about addiction and teaching them healthier ways to cope with challenges. They’ll learn how to better recognize and handle their emotions as well as different ways they can resist cravings and prevent relapse.

Chemical dependence is the result of substance abuse. Over time, the brain and body grow accustomed to having a particular substance in their system. People stop getting high and simply need their drug(s) of choice to feel “normal.” A chemical dependence is not only the reason most people can’t just stop abusing substances; it is a life-threatening condition that requires medical intervention prior to any type of addiction treatment.

Substance use and chemical dependence are closely intertwined, but you cannot treat one without addressing the other. A chemical dependency counselor (CASAC) is trained to help people navigate every stage of recovery from their initial detox and withdrawal to long-term sobriety.

The Effects of Chemical Dependency

Anyone who takes an addictive substance for a period of time will develop a chemical dependency. Even coffee can result in a chemical dependence and withdrawal. The severity of chemical dependency varies by substance and from person to person.

Some drugs have much more dangerous withdrawal symptoms than others. Consider someone who is detoxing from marijuana versus alcohol. Marijuana withdrawal is uncomfortable and may include increased anxiety, depression and fatigue, but it is not life-threatening. Alcohol detox, on the other hand, puts people at risk of developing alcohol withdrawal syndrome (AWS) and a condition called delirium tremors (DTs) that can cause seizures, high blood pressure, hallucinations, heart attack and more.

Because of the different risks associated with withdrawal, people should consult a professional before attempting to detox. Chemical dependency counseling can help by first assessing the severity of a person’s substance use disorder, then determining what services and level of care they’ll need during withdrawal.

How Chemical Dependency Impacts Addiction

Some people believe that if they are able to make it through detox, they’re in the clear. Unfortunately, this is a dangerous mindset that ultimately leads to relapse and ruins a person’s self-esteem. They feel like failures for being unable to resist the natural cravings and urges that persist long after withdrawal symptoms resolve.

Without proper mental health treatment, a person will not be able to “unlearn” addiction and adopt healthier behaviors. The role of a chemical dependency counselor is to provide tips, resources, support and guidance that helps people fully recover. They may start by working through various withdrawal symptoms and avoiding relapse; their work will continue by coordinating with other addiction treatment professionals to develop a personal recovery plan.

These counselors help their clients become more tolerant to anxiety, stress and fear while promoting healthy coping strategies and practical life skills. With the support of a counselor and treatment team, anyone who is committed to overcoming addiction can break the cycle and lead a life they’re proud of.            

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