Most people who are addicted to drugs or alcohol struggle for some time before they are able to get clean. One of the main reasons it’s so difficult to stop using addictive substances is that a chemical dependency develops.  This means the body comes to rely on the drug or alcohol, at first for the pleasure it brings, but then somewhere along the way, a shift happens. Suddenly, what you once sought to feel good, you now need in order not to feel bad. 


How does chemical dependency happen? 

Chemical dependency begins with repeated use of a mind-altering substance, such as alcohol, marijuana, or prescription drugs. In the case of alcohol dependency, the first stage may look like normal drinking behavior, maybe a drink or two at social functions. Gradually, however, the body begins to build up a tolerance so that the person now needs a third drink to get the same euphoric effects they used to get with two. As tolerance increases, consumption does as well. The body then becomes reliant on the substance to maintain homeostasis (balance). In other words, it means the user now has to consume the substance in order to stave off withdrawal symptoms.  


Is chemical dependency different from addiction? 

Chemical dependency and addiction often go hand-in-hand, but technically, they are distinct. Chemical dependency is characterized by the physical body’s dependence on the substance. Addiction is associated with chemical changes in the brain that result in irrational and uncontrollable behaviors around obtaining and using the substance. While there are people who experience chemical dependency without addiction, most often the two go hand-in-hand. In fact, the latest issue of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) now uses “substance abuse disorder” as the official medical term for addiction. 


What are the criteria for substance use disorder? 

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) presents 11 criteria for a diagnosis of substance use disorder.  The number of criteria met determines whether the disorder is considered mild, moderate or severe. Substance use that involves two or more of the following is considered substance use disorder and may indicate a mental and/or physical dependency:

  1. Substance taken in larger amounts or for longer periods than intended
  2. Unsuccessful attempts to quit or control substance use
  3. Significant time spent obtaining, using, or recovering from substance
  4. Physical cravings or strong desires to use substance
  5. Recurrent use of substance results in unmet responsibilities
  6. Continued use despite social or interpersonal problems caused or exacerbated by substance use
  7. Giving up or reducing social, occupational, or recreational activities because of substance use
  8. Recurrent use in physically hazardous situations (such as drinking and driving)
  9. Continued use despite health or psychological problems caused by or exacerbated by substance use
  10. Increased tolerance
  11. Presence of withdrawal symptoms 

For most substances, 2-3 criteria met indicate a mild substance use disorder, 4-5 indicate a moderate substance use disorder, and 6 or more indicate a severe substance use disorder. 


Treatment for Chemical Dependency and Addiction

Although the DSM-5 does not make a clear distinction between chemical dependency and addiction, drug and alcohol treatment programs must address physical dependence and psychological dependence separately. A successful addiction recovery program begins with a successful detox program. The detoxification process involves withdrawal symptoms that can range from mildly uncomfortable to severe and even dangerous. A medically supervised detox program involves careful monitoring, and sometimes medication, in order to ensure the patient’s safety while their body becomes acclimated to operating without drugs or alcohol. 


After detox, addiction treatment typically involves behavioral therapies designed to help the individual:

  • Understand their addiction
  • Recognize, avoid, and cope with triggers 
  • Modify their attitudes 
  • Address co-occurring mental health issues
  • Practice healthy behaviors
  • Enjoy positive relationships
  • Avoid relapse 

Successful chemical dependency and addiction treatment programs should address not only the addiction itself but also any underlying mental health issues the individual may have. Every person who seeks treatment for chemical dependency comes with their own history, circumstances, symptoms, challenges, and assets, so their treatment should be tailored specifically to their needs. 


Are you struggling with chemical dependency? Call us today. 

At Pacific Health Systems, we offer high-quality, cost-effective mental health and chemical dependency services throughout San Diego. If you or someone you love is in need of treatment for addiction or any other mental health issues, we can help.  Our skilled and compassionate providers take an integrative approach to behavioral health, and we treat patients of all ages. For more information on our services, please give us a call at 619-267-9257 today.