The Difference Between Use & Dependence

A group of friends toasting with alcohol is a metaphor for the difference between use and dependence of alcohol.

Substance use disorders are common mental health disorders. Certain substances carry more of a stigma than others. If a person is using illicit substances, a dependency problem is usually easier to spot. When substances that are used socially (such as alcohol) are in question, it can be more difficult to determine if the use is recreational and managed, or if there may be a dependency issue. Knowing the difference between use and dependence and the signs of each can help you better determine if you or a loved one are casually using substances or may be dealing with a substance use disorder.

Casual Use of a Substance

Legal substances (e.g. alcohol) are often used casually by many people. However, illicit substances (e.g. marijuana, cocaine, hallucinogens, etc.) can also be used casually. Even heavy use may not be the best indication of whether a person has substance problem. Plenty of people, especially young adults, tend to heavily drink or use other drugs often. The key to determining whether substance use might indicate a dependency issue is to consider whether the use impairs a person’s ability to maintain important aspects of their life, such as their work, finances, academics, relationships, etc. The effects of discontinued use may also be an indicator.

For example, if you drink heavily at a party or when out with friends on weekends and can stop during the week when you have to go to work, you most likely do not have a dependency problem. However, if you feel the need to keep drinking to relieve withdrawal symptoms or numb emotions, this may indicate a substance use problem.

Signs of Substance Use Disorder

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), substance use disorders are defined as “A chronic, relapsing brain disease that is characterized by repeated use and misuse of a substance despite experiencing harmful consequences.” Dependence can be defined by experiencing withdrawal symptoms (e.g. body aches, chills, trouble sleeping, hypertension, rapid heartrate, seizures, etc.) after not using the substance for a period. It can also be defined by using for emotional reasons (e.g. forgetting childhood traumas, coping with stress, etc.). However, the biggest sign of a dependency problem/substance use disorder is the interference with life. You may start getting into legal trouble that is related to the substance (e.g. possession of illicit substances, intoxicated driving, or theft). Your work or academics may start to suffer due to being late or absent and/or poor performance as a result your substance use. Your relationships with family and friends may start to deteriorate as they become concerned with  your substance use and point out its negative effects. When suffering from a substance use disorder, you may also lose interest in activities that were once important to you, which can limit your ability to enjoy life.

What to Do if You Have a Dependency Problem

If you suspect that you have a dependency problem, you should seek professional help as soon as possible. Substance use disorders are progressive diseases, so getting help early on can improve your likelihood of becoming and staying clean. You may need medical treatment to safely and comfortably get through withdrawal, and you may also need psychological treatment to address the underlying issue that causes you to become dependent on a substance. After getting initial medical assistance you may be recommended to seek longer term treatment at a recovery facility. If this is the case, be sure to research treatment centers to find a substance use disorder program that will work well with you.