Physical vs. Psychological Addiction: What’s the Difference?

“Ecstasy not considered that addictive” ran a headline in the Calgary Herald, an online journal in Canada.

This headline may catch people’s attention, but it is very misleading. In fact, one could argue that it’s a flat-out lie.

Sure, it is true that ecstasy has a lower potential to cause physical dependency than some other drugs, but the article fails to mention the high psychological addiction of ecstasy.

What is a Physical Addiction?

Physical addiction occurs when your body becomes so dependent on a substance or drug your cells cannot function without it. The withdrawal effects—nausea, vomiting, headaches—are the body telling you it needs more of the substance to return to its new (artificial) state of normalcy. Even if you recognize you need to return your body and cells to its original state, the pain of the withdrawal is often so painful, you take another dose to ease the pain as soon as possible.

If addiction were purely physical, the article headline would be 100% correct. According to a scale created by the DEA to rank how addicted an individual is to a drug, Ecstasy ranks lower than heroin, crack, amphetamine and marijuana.

What is the Treatment for Physical Addiction?

Although physical addiction can lead to dangerous withdrawal effects, physical addiction is often easier to treat through the detoxification process.

Take alcohol detox for example. Alcohol detox is the process of weaning the body off of alcohol, slowly tapering the dose so the addict can be alcohol-free without experiencing the seizures and delirium associated with withdrawal. This treatment includes professional medical supervision of symptoms and pharmacological agents. Detox usually takes about a week.

But detox doesn’t fix the other aspect of addiction—a more binding, more potent addiction known as psychological addiction.

Psychological Addiction

Psychological addiction is all in the mind.

This is when you think you need the drug and cannot live without it. Your whole life revolves around getting the next dose.

The DEA describes addiction loosely as “a compulsion that keeps drawing you back to something,” whether that be video games, chocolate, sex, or caffeine.

Psychological addiction, in a way, can be described as a higher level of addiction, because psychological addiction is more than a compulsion. It’s a perceived need.

For example, ecstasy has a high potential for psychological dependency because it is an antidepressant drug of almost unparalleled power. The feelings of happiness, well-being, relaxation, and sexual stimulation cause you to desire the experience again and again. Soon the experience will be all you can think about and all you want, no matter what it costs to obtain it. Ecstasy becomes the center of your life, and you feel like you cannot live without it.

What is the Treatment for Psychological Addiction?

As one can assume, psychological addiction is much more difficult to treat than physical addiction.

While detox can help to reduce the body’s desire for the drug, detox doesn’t cure the desire of the mind. Even if your body can function without the drug, the desire for another drink is still there.

So what’s the treatment? Rehabilitation programs.

Rehabilitation is at the heart of stopping an addiction. The skills and coping techniques acquired in rehabilitation are necessary to deal with the lifelong temptation of relapse.  This is why Duffy’s program includes education sessions, interactive learning and a relapse prevention plan of action. Unless you learn to deny the internal desire of “having another drink” or “taking another dose,” you will never be overcome your addiction.

So What?

The bottom line: don’t be fooled.

Just because a drug is not considered physically addictive doesn’t mean it’s not addictive at all.

In reality, it’s psychological addiction and not physical addiction that is at the root of almost all cases of substance abuse.