Getting Hooked: What’s the Difference Between Physical and Psychological Addiction?


In 2017 alone, there were 19.7 million known Americans aged 12 and older suffering from a substance use disorder involving alcohol and/or illicit drugs. According to American Addiction Centers, drug addiction and abuse cost America over $740 billion annually for crimes, healthcare expenses, and lost workplace productivity.

While drug and alcohol addiction is certainly not new, there is still a stigma surrounding addiction. Likewise, there is a widespread misunderstanding regarding the complexity of addiction, especially when it comes to deciphering the differences between physical and psychological addiction and what each entail.

However, learning more about both physical and psychological addiction and what the prospective treatment option is, it can become more apparent how we can help ourselves, our loved ones, and/or our patients who may be struggling with addiction.

Physical Addiction

When thinking about someone who suffers from a drug or alcohol addiction, we tend to automatically presume they are physically addicted. However, while it is true that many suffering from addiction are physically dependent, not all are. Addiction is not a one-way street.

However, with a physical drug or alcohol addiction, the body craves alcohol or the illicit drug it thinks it requires to function normally. Someone with a physical addiction will deal with withdrawal symptoms when they are not able to get the substance their body “needs” in its system. Withdrawals are a way for the body to beg for the substance.

Withdrawal symptoms drastically vary from individual to individual and can have variant intensities of such symptoms. The type and intensity of withdrawal symptoms is partially dependent on the type of drug(s) used, how severe the addiction is, and how long the addiction has been going on.

Symptoms may include insomnia, fatigue, restlessness, nausea, disorientation, depression, hallucinations, among others. Withdrawal symptoms fade away once the individual takes the substance their body is addicted to.

The best way to understand physical addiction is to compare the body’s hunger for food to the body’s hunger for alcohol or a certain drug, only that the symptoms the person struggling with the addiction feels is more variant and more powerful.

Psychological Addiction

Unlike a physical addiction, someone with merely a psychological addiction thinks they need alcohol or a certain drug, but their body itself doesn’t crave that substance. One might psychologically think they need a substance for different reasons, but generally, the person addicted has a mental or emotional tie to alcohol or the associated drug.

In fact, according to Dual Diagnosis, those suffering from mental illness are twice as likely to become addicted to drugs or alcohol than those without mental illness. They may turn to drugs or alcohol as a form of distraction from their mental or life problems, to uplift their mood or help them better concentrate, or to alleviate anxiety.

Often, those who are psychologically addicted to alcohol or an illicit drug will not suffer from any form of withdrawal symptoms. However, because drugs and alcohol alter one’s psychological state of mind, someone who is psychologically addicted can feel and act differently when they go without their choice of drug or alcohol.

There is especially a stigma around those who suffer from psychological addiction because people assume they can stop at any time since their body still recognizes the substance as something harmful to the body, something that it doesn’t need to live. However, like those with physical addiction, there is still a perceived need for the drug.

The Main Difference Between Physical and Psychological Addiction

Even after reading the latter, you may still have trouble understanding exactly how physical and psychological addiction are different. We know they share the abuse of drugs and/or alcohol, but why would someone become physically addicted but not psychologically addicted and vice versa?

Whether someone becomes physically, psychologically, or both physically and psychologically addicted to a substance depends on the drug they choose, how their addiction started, and what their mental health and genetic history is.

While it is common for one to become physically and/or psychologically addicted later in life, it is very much possible for someone to be born with a physical, but not a psychological, drug or alcohol addiction, that is, if their birth mother used a substance while they were pregnant with them.

While it is not possible to be psychologically addicted to a drug at birth, it is, however, possible to be born with a mental illness which may then trigger that individual’s reasoning for abusing drugs and/or alcohol later in life.

All in all, the main difference between physical and psychological addiction is quite simple: one consumes a substance to meet the so-called need of their body, whereas in the other scenario, one consumes a substance to meet the so-called need they personally believe they require on a mental and/or emotional level.

How Does Addiction Start?

One may turn to a substance to avoid reality or general life problems, as an attempt to eliminate mental health problems, or even to escape boredom. For those struggling with mental health problems, experiencing with drugs can also be an attempt to commit suicide or intentionally reduce one’s own lifespan.

For other folks, addiction begins as a way to “have fun” or “fit in” with their family or friends. Some might even get involved in drugs merely to experience something new and exciting, even if it is just one time.

As for other individuals, there may be no apparent reason for the start of their addiction other than a genetic susceptibility or receiving the addiction directly from their mother while they’re still in the womb.

With some substances, it may take one several uses to develop a physical and/or psychological addiction, but with other substances, it may take only one or a few uses to become addicted. However, just because one tries or abuses drugs and/or alcohol does not guarantee they will become addicted.

Is Physical or Psychological Addiction Worse?

Although some might presume physical addiction is far more serious than psychological addiction, both physical and psychological addiction can have different causes, exasperation, and intensities that make each and every addiction case unique from one person to the next.

For the latter reason, it is impossible to compare physical and psychological addiction. It is also impossible to compare two different people who both suffer from physical addiction as well as two different people who both suffer from psychological addiction.

In the end, both forms of addiction involve the abuse of drugs and/or alcohol. Regardless of the cause or triggers for one’s addiction and how long they have been suffering, addiction should always be treated seriously. Physical addiction recovery should not supersede psychological addiction recovery and vice versa.

In fact, psychological addiction can actually lead to physical addiction. Likewise, physical addiction can also cause one to become psychologically addicted as well. After all, the physical and psychological aspects of us intertwine and are not as distinct as we may treat them.

While we should treat any kind of addiction seriously, an individual who has a mere physical addiction and a person who has a mere psychological addition may require different forms of treatment, but there may also be treatment options that can possibly work for both individuals.

Addiction Recovery

Although some people say, “Once an addict, always an addict,” black and white thinking is never something to promote in any form of recovery. In reality, the recovery itself is not black and white and neither is the struggle itself.

That’s why there are various treatment options at hand to meet the wants and needs of different individuals suffering from different forms and levels of addiction. In fact, there is no single addiction treatment option that works for every single individual. For some people, they may even require more than one treatment option.

Addiction treatment options include but are not excluded to:

  • Counseling

  • Behavioral therapies

  • Recovery housing / sober living environments

  • In-patient rehab

  • Out-patient rehab

  • Self-help groups

  • Medications

Medications, recovery housing, in-patient rehab may be the most suitable for those with physical addiction whereas counseling, therapy, outpatient rehab, and self-help groups may be more applicable for those suffering from psychological addiction. Although, everyone’s journey to a successful addiction recovery varies.

While relapse is a possibility during and after recovery, there are some individuals who come out of addiction recovery essentially “healed” and never or rarely struggle with physical or psychological addiction again. However, for others, things are quite different.

Nevertheless, making positive lifestyle changes plays a big part in addiction recovery. This might involve cutting off ties with friends or family who are bad influences on your addiction, taking up a new hobby, starting a new daily routine, or going back to school to pursue your dreams.

With the help from different professionals, you or your loved one can learn how to overcome addiction on a psychological and physical level. If you’re interested in learning more about long-term addiction recovery and the types of treatment options at hand, please check out


The general takeaway is, addiction can either be just physical, just psychological, or even a combination of both. With how complex the mind is and how different each of us is, it is impossible to say that the struggle with addiction and the road to recovery are identical for everyone.

Regardless of whether addiction is physical or psychological or even both, all forms and intensities of addiction should be treated without stigma. Battling any type of addiction is difficult, but on the bright side, there is help available from self-help groups to recovery housing.

By reaching out for professional help as well as making personal lifestyle changes, the road to addiction recovery can be smoother and easier than some may expect. However, recovery is certainly no walk in the park.

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