Skip to main content

Understanding Substance Abuse, Addiction, Tolerance, Dependence and Withdrawal

There are different levels or stages of abuse and physiological and environmental influences that may cause an individual who is abusing drugs to continue taking them to the point they develop an addiction.

There are different levels or stages of abuse and physiological and environmental influences that may cause an individual who is abusing drugs to continue taking them to the point they develop an addiction.


In order to understand drug use disorders such as opioid use disorder, it is important to distinguish between the terms abuse, addiction, tolerance, dependence, and withdrawal. Unfortunately, many people, including some health professionals, often mistakenly use these terms interchangeably. However, the terms are not different names for the same phenomenon. Greater awareness of the differences between these terms can help us better comprehend the problems associated with drug use and the associated problems. This will enable us to create more effective, compassionate, and humane treatments for this group of disorders.

Drug Abuse vs. Addiction

The biggest degree of confusion in defining these terms lies in the difference between abuse and addiction. Both of these difficulties result in a number of social, psychological, and physical problems for the individual. However, there are also some key differences. Substance abuse is defined as the use of a substance in a manner for which it is not intended and/or in amounts that are in excess of what is safe over a period of time. Some examples of abuse are using pain medication strictly to feel the euphoria and anxiety relieving qualities it provides or binge drinking to the point of blacking out to avoid thinking about something painful.

While abuse can lead to addiction, abuse is generally defined as any use of illicit substances or inappropriate use of legally prescribed medications, such as taking larger doses than were prescribed. Someone abusing a substance can stop taking it, should they decide to do so, without significant withdrawal effects. The person suffering from drug abuse understands they shouldn’t be using the substance in the manner in which they are. Often, when the effects of the drug seem to be significantly impacting their life, or there is a serious consequence such as getting a DUI, they will stop taking it. [Note: The term “substance use disorder” was substituted for the term “drug abuse” in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5, 2013)].

Drug addiction is a more severe form of substance use that not only causes problems when the individual takes the drug but also when they attempt to stop taking it. According to NIDA, alcohol and drug addiction can be defined as a long-term, relapsing brain disease characterized by regular drug-seeking behavior and use, regardless of harmful consequences. The disorder involves uncontrollable cravings and maladaptive drug-seeking behavior that takes up much of the individual's life.

NIDA refers to the disorder as a brain disease because drugs alter the functioning as well as the structure of the brain, often in long-lasting ways. The alterations of the brain can result in changes in personality, social and occupational difficulties, and other harmful behaviors observed in those who become addicted to drugs. Typically, the definition of addiction includes tolerance and dependence, though dependence may be physical, psychological, or, more commonly, both.

As previously mentioned, not everyone that uses drugs, legally or illegally, becomes addicted to them. There are different levels or stages of abuse and physiological and environmental influences that may cause an individual who is abusing drugs to continue taking them to the point they develop an addiction. Abuse always precedes addiction, and statistics show that many people who suffer from drug abuse do tend to go on to develop an addiction.

Dependence vs. Addiction

Dependence is another term commonly confused with the term addiction. Dependence simply means that the body has come to depend on an external source of a drug to prevent withdrawal from occurring. Most drugs create a pleasurable effect by increasing the level of certain substances in the brain.

While initially, the brain may be able to continue producing the naturally occurring substance over time, the brain senses its efforts aren’t needed as there is plenty of the substance circulating and decreases or stops producing it. When a person then stops taking the drug without cutting down first, there is a period of time before the brain begins to generate the natural substance again, leading to negative physical and emotional symptoms.

Often, people will realize that they are becoming dependent on the substance or want to prevent dependence from occurring and will try to stop taking the drug on their own cold turkey. When someone is already dependent, they will experience the negative withdrawal symptoms associated with the substance. These symptoms may be physical, psychological, or, more usually, both.

The psychological symptoms can be emotional, such as depression or anxiety. They can also be cognitive; for example, the person thinking that when they no longer use the drug, they won’t be as social, won’t be able to perform something at the same level, or they will just be too lethargic to do what they need to do day to day. They will then start taking the drug again to get rid of these symptoms, and the quick abatement of the negative symptoms is such a relief that it reinforces taking the drug.

Dependence can occur without addiction. For example, someone with chronic pain may be able to take their opioid medication as prescribed, developing tolerance over the long term, but don't develop uncontrollable compulsion, loss of control, and manipulative behavior aimed at getting more as tolerance develops.

Another example is prednisone, a synthetic steroid that is used to treat a number of inflammatory conditions. Prednisone doesn’t appear to produce addiction; however, if a patient stops taking it after several weeks, they will likely experience fatigue, weakness, body aches, and joint pain. Dependence is the desire to avoid withdrawal symptoms. While dependence is not an addiction, it can quickly become an addiction. Many people who take prescription medicine daily for a long time may become dependent.

Those who depend on drugs to function at a satisfactory level generally experience extreme psychological and physical discomfort when they do not use the drug for a long period. Feelings of dependency are persistent and compulsive, and without help and support, it is possible for people to experience these feelings for many years.

Tolerance occurs when a person no longer responds to a substance in the way they originally did.

Tolerance occurs when a person no longer responds to a substance in the way they originally did.


When substances such as morphine or cocaine are used repeatedly over time, tolerance can develop. Tolerance occurs when a person no longer responds to a substance in the way they originally did. Tolerance takes place at the cellular level. One way this can occur is the body increasing the speed with which the drug is metabolized such that it is removed from the body at a faster rate than previously.

Scroll to Continue

Read More From Healthproadvice

The body can also adapt to the constant presence of a drug resulting in a decreased sensitivity of receptors, so more of the drug is needed to get the receptors to respond. When the sensitivity decreases, the person experiences less of an effect from the drug. The individual must then take more of the drug to obtain the same effect they first experienced.

This process explains why people with substance use disorders take more and more of a drug to get the sensation they desire. The development of tolerance does not automatically mean the person is addicted since it is possible for tolerance to occur without the cravings, drug-seeking and out-of-control behavior found in addiction. However, a number of drugs that produce tolerance are also addictive.

Tolerance doesn’t necessarily reduce the negative effects of the drug on the body. For example, over time, a person can experience tolerance to alcohol, needing to drink more to feel the level of relaxation, decrease anxiety or avoid negative thoughts they did when they first began to drink. Even though they are feeling the same effect they once did, this does not mean their entire body is adapting to alcohol. The damage to their brain and liver will still increase with the increased alcohol consumption. The effects of drugs and alcohol on the body are not indicated by how the person feels regarding the desired effects.


Withdrawal is a group of physical and psychological symptoms that can range from mild to life-threatening depending on the substance used and the amount the person routinely takes. It occurs after the person has become dependent on the drug. This means that when the person stops taking the substance, they need to do it gradually to avoid withdrawal discomfort.

Withdrawal is one of the main factors that maintains addiction. When addiction first begins, often, the person is aware that there is a problem. However, attempts to stop taking the drug lead to such negative symptoms that the person begins to take the drug again to make the symptoms go away. Every time the person starts to contemplate no longer using the drug, the memory of the withdrawal symptoms makes them anxious, and they will likely come up with a reason that there is something happening that they need the drug to cope with. As time passes, the addiction grows worse, and eventually, they stop thinking about quitting.

The symptoms of substance withdrawal, and the length of the withdrawal, differ depending on the substance and the length of the addiction. For example, withdrawal from heroin and prescription pain medication results in flu-like symptoms, dehydration, convulsions, hallucinations, insomnia, mood swings, Irritability, inability to concentrate, seizures, depression, anxiety, high blood pressure, paranoia, and hyperactivity. These symptoms can last up to two weeks.

Withdrawal from cocaine, on the other hand, results in depression, exhaustion, increased appetite, vivid, unpleasant dreams, muscle aches, nerve pain, anxiety, restlessness, chills, tremors, and the inability to feel pleasure, mood swings, and thoughts of suicide. These symptoms last seven to fourteen days.

Withdrawal from a substance after dependence has developed is best carried out in a substance abuse treatment facility that provides medical detox. Medical detox ensures that medical professionals are available to ensure the individual remains physically and emotionally safe by monitoring vital signs and psychological states. Physical stability involving safely removing the substance from the body is the first goal of detox, after which psychological withdrawal symptoms can be addressed.

An important goal is learning to function effectively without the substance and how to replace the addictive behaviors with healthy alternative behaviors.

An important goal is learning to function effectively without the substance and how to replace the addictive behaviors with healthy alternative behaviors.

A Word About Recovery

Recovery is the process of reversing the brain changes that result from taking the drug and reacclimating to experiencing life without the effects of the substance. This is accomplished through a series of steps that need to be inpatient. It usually involves first getting the person safely off the medication, followed by psychotherapy to deal with issues related to the reasons the person began taking the drug.

An important goal is learning to function effectively without the substance and how to replace the addictive behaviors with healthy alternative behaviors. Coping skills training is generally incorporated to give the person new skills to address stressful life circumstances. Sometimes, medication may be used on a limited basis to help the person cope with physical withdrawal symptoms and extreme emotional symptoms such as anxiety while the person is learning to cope more adaptively. However, health care professionals are careful not to replace one addiction with another one.


American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (DSM-5®). American Psychiatric Pub.

Compton, P. & Chang, Y. P. (2017). Substance Abuse and Addiction. Clinical Journal of Oncology Nursing, 21(2), 203.

George, O., Koob, G. F., & Vendruscolo, L. F. (2014). Negative reinforcement via motivational withdrawal is the driving force behind the transition to addiction. Psychopharmacology, 231(19), 3911-3917.

Hasin, D. S., O’Brien, C. P., Auriacombe, M., Borges, G., Bucholz, K., Budney, A. & Schuckit, M. (2013). DSM-5 criteria for substance use disorders: recommendations and rationale. American Journal of Psychiatry, 170(8), 834-851.

Julien, R. M. (2013). A primer of drug action: A concise nontechnical guide to the actions, uses, and side effects of psychoactive drugs, revised and updated. Holt Paperbacks.

Substance, Abuse, Health Services Administration US Mental, and Office of the Surgeon General (US). (2016). Facing addiction in America: The Surgeon General's report on alcohol, drugs, and health.

Wise, R. A., & Koob, G. F. (2014). The development and maintenance of drug addiction. Neuropsychopharmacology, 39(2), 254.

This content is for informational purposes only and does not substitute for formal and individualized diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed medical professional. Do not stop or alter your current course of treatment. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2018 Natalie Frank


Natalie Frank (author) from Chicago, IL on June 14, 2018:

I agree that often we forget just how complex addictions are and the focus on someone taking the drug exclusively along with negative judgements oftentimes eclipses some of contributing factors. Thanks for the comment and for stopping by.

WaismannMethod on June 13, 2018:

Articles like this are great to educate the public and treatment providers on the differences between conditions. Often people concentrate so much on the addiction, they tend to forget all other aspects of the individual. Addiction is mostly a consequence of an untreated issue.

Jeanniebrasher777 on May 21, 2018:

My son who luves with me has a very severe addiction to pain pills. He fell off a ladder and u know the rest. The problem i have is he cannot get enough of the pain pills and does things to me that scare me. I have a broke back and get my pills from my paun doctor which i take as prescribed. I do not get a high from them. If i take one more than i should it makes me feel sick. My son gets up in the night and trys to steal my purse but i keep them in a safe place.That makes him angry so he will call the police and puts on the biggest act that i am screaming at him and i will be the one that gets in trouble. I feel so helpless and afraid cause he will do all kinds of crazy things ti me. I don't know what to do cause he will threaten me if i dont guve him my pills to him so i try to stay awake most nights cause he tries all kinds of things to hurt me.I live alone with him and the family has disown him and me for letting him stay with me but it is harder than u know to kick him out than u know

Natalie Frank (author) from Chicago, IL on May 12, 2018:

So true, Flourish. People at least need to know the consequences of stopping a med cold turkey. Many people think if they are taking something regularly and want to get off of it they should just stop. There is also the issue of people who don't refill meds on time and go without several days and people on Medicare who enter the gap ad can't afford meds for a month or so. All of this can be very dangerous. Thanks for the comment.

Natalie Frank (author) from Chicago, IL on May 12, 2018:

Thanks Dora. Glad the article cleared some things up. Thanks for stopping by and for the comment.

Natalie Frank (author) from Chicago, IL on May 12, 2018:

Good for you Bill! It's not easy. I took valium for pain and back spasms way back when I danced in college. Evidently before ethical prescribing was a thing ( : - They just poured a bunch into a little yellow envelope and handed it to me. When I realized I took it from after dinner when I didn't have rehearsal through the night I got scared and flushed them and never went back. I didn't have terrible withdrawal symptoms but I didn't sleep for a while.

CaribTales on May 12, 2018:

Thanks for these clear explanations on these terms and how they differ. The one most unfamiliar to me was tolerance. Not anymore. Good job!

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on May 06, 2018:

Been there, done that, never going back again!

FlourishAnyway from USA on May 06, 2018:

It’s worth considering what regular prescription meds you take might induce unwanted effects if withdrawn. Some people I know just stop taking such meds cold turkey but there could be ramifications and it needs to be done under a doctor’s supervision.

Related Articles