Oct 10, 2014
Ask addicts whether mental and physical addiction are the same, and many times their answer coincides with their drug of choice. New evidence, however, suggests there is no difference between the two.
Much of the confusion is based on miscommunication. Addiction is addiction, but how that manifests is different. For instance, heroin is notorious for its intense physical withdrawal, while MDMA (ecstasy) and cocaine are known for their emotional and mental toll. In other words, many people are not comparing mental and physical addiction; they are comparing addiction and physical withdrawal. Of course, this is not always the case, but often enough for the confusion to become almost ubiquitous.
On top of this, many claim that some addictive substances are not physically addictive simply because they do not have the same flu-like, physical symptoms that opiate withdrawals have. The logic here (or lack thereof) should be glaringly obvious, yet still this myth persists. Almost all withdrawals result in restlessness, depression, irritability, and lack of sleep to some degree. One might try to argue that these are mental, but the only reason they presented themselves was because of a physically tangible, chemical change in the addict’s brain.
A lot of this still applies to addiction recovery, though. For instance, many come into treatment just looking to detox or get off drugs, assuming that once the physical withdrawals are done, they can go back to a regular, functional lifestyle. While that may hold true in some cases, they are negligible in comparison.
Mental and physical addiction are the same because the physiological changes from tolerance and withdrawal also result in physical changes to the brain. These physical changes to the brain also change the messages the brain sends to the rest of the body. In essence, we have a chicken-or-the-egg issue.
While addiction, withdrawal, and tolerance are different, and related, at the same time, none of this is truly the problem. The problem is that the addict or alcoholic, whether vomiting or contemplating suicide, has no hope of breaking the cycle outside of death or recovery. The families and other loved ones are left in a perpetual state of fear, chaos, sadness, and anger. Misery is misery; does it really matter what the source is?
Of course it does not. Ultimately, in the context of dealing with an addict or alcoholic in the throes of his or her disease, this is all irrelevant. The debates are nothing but the addict or alcoholic trying to minimize their disease. Semantics do not change that the addict/alcoholic’s life is unmanageable and damage is being done to those around him or her. The addict or alcoholic might not be as bad as others, but what consolation is that to those of you who love that addict or alcoholic?