What is Chemical Dependency?

Chemical dependency is an incurable disease, characterized by having an addiction to a mood-changing chemical. Someone who is chemically dependent can’t quit drinking alcohol or taking the substance despite the serious economic, legal, social, spiritual, and health risks. Chemical dependency is a progressive and chronic disease that if left untreated could be deadly.

Chemical Dependency Versus Substance Use Disorder

When compared to substance use disorder, substance or chemical dependency describes the abuse of drugs or alcohol that goes on even after a lot of issues occur from taking that drug or alcohol. It is caused by prolonged use of a drug. When a person tries to stop the substance, they are unable to because the chemical balance of their brain has changed. Trying to stop the substance might result in excruciating withdrawal symptoms and intense cravings for more.

Signs that a person has developed a chemical dependency are developing a tolerance or need to take more of the drug in order to gain desired effects, withdrawal symptoms from ceasing use of the drug, difficulty stopping or cutting down on taking a substance. Other signs are continuing to use the drug even though it is impacting a person’s well being and social relationships, refraining from social activities, and spending a lot of time trying to obtain, use, and then recover from the effects of the substance.

On the other hand, substance use disorder is the excessive use of a drug that has a negative impact on oneself, society, or both. For example, a person who abuses a substance might miss work or school. It can even interfere with family and friend relationships. Substance use disorder has been recognized as a medical disorder, that upon repeated use alters the chemical balance of a person’s brain.

What is substance use disorder?

Substance use disorder is a relatively recently created disorder that combines substance use disorder and substance dependence into one overarching disorder. Substance use disorder happens when an individual’s use of alcohol or a drug creates health problems or issues at home, school, or work. People who have substance use disorder often experience distorted thinking, behavior and body functions. This is caused by the changes in the brain’s chemical balance that make people experience powerful cravings for the substance and make it so hard to discontinue use because of painful withdrawal symptoms. The changes in the brain can last long after a person discontinues use.

What substances are most often abused?

According to an article posted in Clinical Methods, in the United States, 5 to 10 percent of the adult population has a drinking problem, around 600,000 people are addicted to heroin, and over 25 million Americans have tried marijuana at least once. With that being said, it is apparent that there is a huge substance use disorder problem. Alcohol is the most commonly abused legal drug, but illegal drugs such as heroin, LSD, marijuana, prescription drugs like painkillers, stimulants or anxiety pills, cocaine, opiates, hallucinogens, inhalants,or methamphetamine are also often abused.

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What causes drug abuse or dependence?

The exact cause of substance use disorder is unknown. There could be several factors that contribute to the development of drug abuse or dependency which is similar to mental health disorders. Environmental factors such as a family’s beliefs and attitudes could play a role. Another environmental factor is peer pressure that appears to aid in initial drug use. Genetic factors can contribute to continued drug use once a person starts using the drug. A person’s genetic traits can delay or speed up disease progression. Other possible causes of drug abuse or dependence are the impact of the drug, anxiety, emotional distress, and depression. Also, a lot of people who experience substance dependence also have a mental health problem as well.

What are the symptoms of drug abuse or dependence?

Chemical dependency symptoms vary greatly from person to person. However, symptoms can include an increase in the amount of a substance used or using the drug longer than initially intended. An individual might continuously try to reduce the use of a drug, but can’t stop. Also, a person may experience an intense craving for the substance, not participate in activities they used to, experience withdrawal symptoms when not using the drug, and it could interfere with everyday life.

How is drug abuse or dependence diagnosed?

Drug abuse or dependence can be diagnosed by a physician, mental health professional, or psychiatrist. A lot of the time these medical professionals will determine if there is a chemical dependency based off of time since last use of the drug, weight loss, poor hygiene, bloodwork abnormalities, frequent fatigue, red eyes, depression, anxiety, insomnia, and abnormal heart rate or blood pressure.

Mental health professionals will typically use the DSM-5 to diagnose drug abuse or dependence. An article published by the Substance Use Disorder and Mental Health Services Administration, mentioned that the DSM-IV describes substance use disorder as part of a class of disorders that are related to the taking of a drug.

Substance use disorder is diagnosed if a person has 1 or more symptoms (out of 4, at any time) and no history of substance dependence for that category of substance. Examples of the substance use disorder criteria are recurrent substance-related legal issues, recurrent substance use resulting in failure to fulfill obligation at school, work, or home, and recurrent substance use in situations where it is physically dangerous.

Substance dependence is diagnosed if a person has 3 or more symptoms (out of 7 in a 12 month period). Examples of the substance dependence criteria are tolerance, withdrawal, and continuing use despite health problems.

Recently, the DSM-IV was revised into the DSM-5 which combines substance use disorder disorder and substance dependence disorder into one single disorder known as substance use disorder. Substance use disorder requires 2 out of the 11 criteria in a 12 month period in order to be diagnosed. Substance use disorder criteria are the combination of substance use disorder and substance dependence criteria with the exception of legal problems and the addition of cravings and severity to the criteria list.

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Treatment for drug abuse or dependence

Since mental illness and substance use disorder often go hand in hand, a person might have started taking the mood changing chemicals in order to cope with or mask the pain of a mental illness. The chemicals in the substance they are abusing might provide them with temporary relief but nothing to correct the root of their emotional problem. This is known as self-medication, which can easily lead to addiction. Therefore, treating the addiction alone will not fix the problem and treating the mental illness alone will not cure the person either. Both the addiction and mental illness need to be addressed in order to have successful treatment.

After the diagnosis of chemical dependency has been determined, chemical dependency treatment involves finding a program that can assist in the detoxification process. The recovering addict will be assigned to a counselor and physician. Treatment often includes individual and group therapy, education about addiction, and opportunities to establish positive relationships with peers. This form of treatment aims to discover the root of the mental illness associated with chemical dependency. Treatment also frequently includes medications. These medications aim to aid in the detox process and reduce the occurrence of relapse. The main goal of treatment centers is complete abstinence from drugs and alcohol. One way to accomplish this is through a 12-step program. This form of treatment is designed to help individuals see that addiction is controlling their behaviors and assist them in making positive, healthy life changes.

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If your or a loved one is struggling with chemical dependency finding an exceptional rehab clinic can greatly support the healing process.


Medical disclaimer:

Sunshine Behavioral Health strives to help people who are facing substance abuse, addiction, mental health disorders, or a combination of these conditions. It does this by providing compassionate care and evidence-based content that addresses health, treatment, and recovery.

Licensed medical professionals review material we publish on our site. The material is not a substitute for qualified medical diagnoses, treatment, or advice. It should not be used to replace the suggestions of your personal physician or other health care professionals.

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