The Mechanics of Physiological Dependence
Addiction is a complex disease that has lasting impacts on both the body and the mind. Over time, a complex web of physical and psychological changes develop that cause withdrawal syndrome as soon as substance abuse ends. An intensive treatment program in a sober living facility may be the safest route to recovery.
Physiological dependence describes these pervasive changes to how the mind and body function as a result of continued drug or alcohol use. Understanding how drug dependence works will help you or your loved ones create realistic expectations of the challenges ahead.
So, as we delve deeper into the mechanics of addiction, keep in mind that there are new treatments which will guide you through these stages and forward into full recovery.
What Is Physiological Dependence?
Scientifically speaking, physiological dependence describes the adaptive changes the body makes in response to the continued use of an addictive substance. These adaptations to brain and body chemistry, hormone levels, and organ functions develop slowly and will take time to return to normal.
The gradual process of developing dependence may look like this:
- During early substance abuse, before physical addiction develops, the body has not adapted and the “hangover” is at its height. Stopping the substance is a relief to the system, and the body quickly returns to normal.
- With continued drug or alcohol abuse, the body adjusts its chemical balance to compensate for the effects of the drug. There is less of a hangover, but the effects are also felt less intensely, which may lead to increasing doses.
- After habitual use develops, the body expects a certain frequency and pattern. As soon as the substance is missed, a craving begins to develop. A physical need causes thoughts about using.
- The body and brain are now dependent on the substance and may not function well without it. Certain substances may even cause life-threatening symptoms if the drug is suddenly stopped.
- Faced with a powerful physical and mental withdrawal whenever they try to limit their use, individuals may need professional medical help in a safe environment to recover from their addiction.
- When sobriety is achieved and maintained, the chemical balance in the body and brain will return to normal, and the individual’s true personality and vitality will be recovered.
Comparing Psychological and Physical Dependence
Psychological dependence traditionally refers to the behavioral decisions, emotional triggers, and other feelings and mental health factors which fuel addiction or result from it. Depression, anxiety, or risk-taking behaviors might be part of this category.
Physical dependence describes changes to the body that could be measured in a medical lab test, as a result of addiction. Seizures, rapid heart rate, and measurable changes to serotonin or endorphin levels might be symptoms of physical dependence.
These terms can be confusing but, in fact, they are both parts of the physiology of addiction. Scientists are increasingly understanding the links between brain chemicals, hormonal triggers, the nervous system, and consciousness. Separating the body and mind when treating drug dependence would be counterproductive. The addiction impacts the whole person, so the person needs healing in all aspects.
Why Does Physiological Dependence Develop?
Researchers and treatment professionals have many theories on the precise process that causes addiction, with a varying focus on the body or brain sides of treatment. Sober living communities incorporate the most effective techniques drawn from these new ways of thinking about the disease.
Early addiction theories included the “tolerance-withdrawal theory”, which identified the desire to avoid withdrawal symptoms as the cause of addiction. However, some drugs have limited withdrawal symptoms but are still highly addictive, and some addicts relapse long after their physical symptoms have passed. This is one factor, but is not the only answer.
Alcohol withdrawal and relapse studies of animals and humans are documenting the triggers that provoke relapse, and they are working to understand why some people are more sensitive than others to these behavior drivers.
The alcohol dependence process develops this way:
- When consumed, alcohol is metabolized by a liver enzyme and eliminated through the urine. When there is too much to be metabolized, it is absorbed by other parts of the body, including the brain.
- The alcohol absorbed by the brain suppresses neurotransmitters, which reduce inhibitions and cause a feeling of relaxation, as well as difficulties with speaking, walking, and memory.
- When the alcohol is fully eliminated from the system, those neurotransmitters become hyper-reactive, resulting in restlessness, anxiety, and nervousness.
- Consuming more alcohol further suppresses brain chemicals and activity, resulting in temporary relief but, ultimately, causes more discomfort when the brain tries to return to a normal state.
- Over time, more and more alcohol is needed to produce the same feelings of relaxation, and the feelings of hyper-excitement and stress consume the body’s energy whenever the individual is not drinking.
Medication may be needed as part of the alcohol recovery program to speed the brain’s return to healthy activity. More natural methods of achieving relaxation can help bridge the gap during treatment.
The Symptoms of Physiological Drug Dependence
- Changes in personality and behavior that are noticed by friends and family
- Changing daily routine to facilitate drug use
- Lack of motivation or energy
- Heightened levels of irritability, agitation, and aggressive behavior
- Bloodshot eyes and bloody noses; deteriorating hygiene
- Experiencing shakes, tremors, or slurred speech
- Experiencing strong cravings
- Needing to hide or lie about substance abuse
- Obsessing or worrying about the time of the next dose
- Seeking out people or places where drinking or drug use are normalized
- Financial problems resulting from prioritizing drug use above necessities
Understanding the Reasons for Relapse
Most people choose to take drugs for the first time voluntarily. Once addiction sets in, however, the associated brain changes interfere with the individual’s ability to make a healthy decision. Even when they are clearly aware of the destructive effects of their drug use and have made progress in their recovery, they remain at risk for relapse.
Like other chronic, relapsing diseases, including high blood pressure and diabetes, treating drug addiction is an ongoing process. If a relapse occurs, this is not a failure of treatment; it is a sign that ongoing, different, or more intensive treatment is needed to control the disease.
Contributing risk factors for relapse include:
- Withdrawal-related anxiety
- Leaving a sober living facility or treatment program
- Genetic factors and family history
- Slowly increasing stresses involving work or family
- Sudden life changes, including loss of employment, separation, or divorce
- Lack of a sober living environment
- Lack of connection with a strong support system
Treatment and Recovery from Physiological Dependence
Addiction may not be “cured,” but it is effectively managed with an individualized treatment program. Restoring control, confidence, and self-worth start by taking meaningful action toward those goals.
Some of the therapies and strategies that might be part of a long-term program to manage addiction include:
- Behavioral counseling to identify triggers and cues
- Medication to reduce or reverse the adaptive changes caused by addiction
- Technology, including medical devices that manage or monitor symptoms
- Software applications that help cope with cravings and teach relaxation skills
- Identification and treatment of co-occurring mental health conditions
- Long-term professional support to prevent relapse
- Cultivating community- or family-based support systems
The Mechanics Can Be Repaired
Most people must start their repair process by acknowledging that they have developed a dependence on drugs or alcohol. Until the need for repair is recognized, nothing can be fixed. Once you’ve realized that you need tools and guidance, choosing a treatment program that provides what you need will get the recovery process underway.
Let what you’ve learned about the physiological effects of addiction be a motivating reason to take that step now. You don’t need to do all the work alone, but you can seize the opportunity to put yourself or your loved one in the best possible environment to repair the body, heal the mind, and free the spirit from the bonds of drug dependence.
At RECO Institute, we offer sober living facilities that offer the ideal healing environment and innovative therapeutic supports. In cooperation with RECO Intensive, we can guide your journey from the first step toward sobriety to a strong and supportive sober lifestyle for the future. Reach out to us today to find out more about sober living in Delray Beach, Florida.