Alcohol abuse is a dangerous – sometimes even deadly – problem. However, diagnosing the severity of an alcohol abuse issue can be difficult for many living with it due to the sometimes unclear differences between alcohol dependence vs. addiction. While the terms, “alcohol dependence” and “alcohol addiction”, are often used interchangeably, there are some significant differences between the two. However, the language surrounding addiction is always adapting and changing as further research is done. In many ways, both terms are a thing of the past.     

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Understanding Alcohol and its Effects 

In order to understand the differences between alcohol dependence vs. addiction, one must understand how alcohol affects a person, creates dependence, and leads to addiction.

What is Alcohol?

Alcohol has a variety of forms and means many things to many cultures and people. Above all, alcohol is the primary ingredient in beer, wine, whiskey, vodka, and more. As a substance, the alcohol in alcoholic beverages is ethanol, which is a type of alcohol made from the fermentation of grains, fruits, or other sugars. Ethanol, unlike other forms of alcohol, is drinkable.

How Does Alcohol Affect a Person?

Alcohol has a number of significant effects on a person when they consume it. The ethanol in alcoholic beverages affects a person in the same way some drugs do. This is because ethanol is a central nervous system depressant – much like opioids. When consumed, depressants slow down a person’s brain activity. In doing so, the consumption of alcoholic beverages will affect several of a person’s mental and physical aspects and functions, including their mood, behavior, self-control, coordination, memory, motor skills, and overall thought process.    

The severity of the effects of alcohol often varies from person to person. This can be attributed to several factors. However, it most often depends on how much one drinks, how quickly one drinks, and whether or not one ate food before drinking. Other factors include a person’s age, biological sex, physical condition, and more. 

Alcohol Dependence 

If a person drinks alcohol excessively and often, they typically develop a dependence on the substance. When someone uses the term, “alcohol dependence”, they are typically referring to a person having a physical dependence on alcohol. This means that the person is experiencing symptoms of tolerance and will exhibit symptoms of withdrawal when not consuming alcohol. Although alcohol dependence is not considered alcohol addiction, it is extremely similar and almost always the last step before a person develops a fully-formed alcohol addiction.  

Dependence vs. Addiction

While dependence and addiction often appear similar, the terms exist for different reasons and symbolize different levels of severity with an individual’s problem with alcohol.

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What is Alcohol Addiction?

One of the main reasons why the terms, “alcohol dependence” and “alcohol addiction”, often cause confusion and end up being misused is because alcohol addiction is alcohol dependence and then some. As stated in the previous section, alcohol dependence is characterized by the physical aspects of a person’s problem with alcohol. Alcohol addiction also has the same physical aspects of the problem but with an added mental component.  

What is Mental Dependence?

Mental dependence is the part of an alcohol abuse problem that is unique to alcohol addiction but not alcohol dependence. Mental dependence occurs when the use of a substance like alcohol is a conditioned response to a certain event or events or certain feelings. These events and feelings are called “triggers”. They have been given this name because they create an immense, often uncontrollable desire for a person to consume a substance like alcohol. 

Triggers are the result of changes that occur in a person’s brain. When a person frequently consumes alcohol, the brain and body are forced to adapt. By adapting, the brain and body become dependent on alcohol to continue normal functioning. In order to ensure that the body receives the substance it is dependent on, the brain restructures itself, essentially forcing a person to be more likely to give into their triggers.   

What are the Differences? 

Overall, when a person uses the term “alcohol dependence”, they are typically only referring to the physical dependence on the substance. This means that a person has a tolerance for alcohol and will experience withdrawals when not consuming it. 

However, when a person uses the term “alcohol addiction”, they are typically referring to both mental and physical dependence on the substance. In this case, a person with an alcohol addiction has physical tolerance and withdrawals as well as mental triggers that cause cravings and ultimately influence a person’s behavior. From this, one can think of the term “alcohol addiction” as a more severe and more developed form of alcohol dependence.   

Developments in Terms for Alcohol Abuse 

The terms surrounding addiction are constantly being updated as further research into addiction is conducted. The most accepted and utilized terms for mental health disorders and conditions, like addiction, can be found in the fifth edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). In the latest version of the manual, terms like “substance abuse” and “substance dependence” were ultimately abandoned. 

At the moment, the DSM-5 uses the term “substance use disorder” as well as “alcohol use disorder”. Under these new terms and guidelines, there is no longer a distinction between dependence and addiction. Any alcohol abuse problem falls under the umbrella of an alcohol use disorder, and the terms “physical dependence” and “mental dependence” are no longer used to indicate the severity of a person’s alcohol abuse problem. Instead, the DSM-5 recommends labeling severity as “mild”, “moderate”, or “severe” alcohol use disorder.

Although these changes can be confusing at first, they have helped to clear up the differences between dependence vs. addiction by changing the language entirely. 

Searching for Alcohol Abuse Treatment?

The differences between dependence vs. addiction can be hard to determine, especially for yourself or a loved one. If you or a loved one are living with what you consider to be alcohol dependence or addiction, professional help is available near you! At Knoxville Recovery Center, our team of experienced addiction specialists provide our patients with a variety of effective alcohol addiction treatments and therapies. Contact us today to learn more!   

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