Module 6: how drugs work: facilitator's guide

8.3 Physical and psychological dependence

Page last updated: 2004

Dependence on a drug can be physical, psychological or both. Many daily drug users demonstrate signs of both.

The physical and psychological aspects of drug dependence are closely related and can be difficult to separate (often workers in the AOD field talk only of dependence). However, there are some differences.

Task
Case study - Gemma
Case study - Thomas

Task

Question - What do you understand by the term 'physical dependence'?

Answer - Physical dependence to a drug can be demonstrated by the presence of withdrawal symptoms when the drug is not taken.

That is, the person depends on the drug to avoid withdrawal symptoms and to function normally. This is also known as 'addiction', a term not so widely used in recent times. Physical dependence on a drug often follows heavy daily use over several weeks or longer.

Case study - Gemma

Gemma uses about $100 worth of heroin per day, in two to four injections, four to twelve hours apart. When she goes for longer than twelve hours without the drug, she feels sick in the stomach, anxious, and has very strong cravings for the drug.

Question - Consider a young person physically dependent on alcohol, sedatives or cannabis. What sort of physical symptoms might they demonstrate if they go without that substance for a significant period of time?

Question - What do you understand by the term 'psychological dependence'?

Answer - Psychological dependence occurs when a drug becomes central to a person's thoughts, emotions and activities. It can be demonstrated by a strong urge to use the drug, despite being aware of its harmful effects.

While not all drugs are considered capable of leading to physical dependence, it is possible for any drug to lead to psychological dependence.Top of page

Case study - Thomas

Thomas sniffs petrol with his friends. He often goes without sniffing for a few days, with no withdrawal symptoms. However, when he has not sniffed for a week or more, he can feel a strong urge to sniff, despite knowing the dangers of petrol sniffing. The urges to sniff can be very strong if he feels depressed or bored.

Psychological dependence

Task - workplace learning/writing exercise

Question - Describe another example of a young person psychologically dependent on amphetamines, ecstasy or alcohol.

Question - From your experience, what sort of physical symptoms might a physically dependent person demonstrate if they go without that substance for a significant period of time?

Question - What sort of symptoms might a psychologically dependent person demonstrate if they go without that substance for a significant period of time?