Defining the Difference: What’s the Difference Between Abuse and Addiction?


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While drug abuse and drug addiction may be connected, it’s important to understand that they are two different things altogether. You may not be able to easily tell the difference when you interact with someone who may be struggling with either. However, there are ways to spot the difference between drug abuse and addiction if you know what to look for. One thing for certain is that chronic drug abuse and addiction can have serious ramifications on a person’s life and that treatment can be helpful. Here’s a look at how the two differ.

While Substance Abuse Can Appear Casual, Addiction Typically Does Not

When comparing drug abuse vs drug addiction, drug abuse not only occurs when the drug use manifests particular problems, but drug abuse can appear rather casual in nature. For instance, substance abuse is considered using prescription drugs, like pain medication, to get high, which is essentially using the medicine in a way other than its intended prescribed use.

On the other hand, addiction typically manifests in the form of significant physical, social and psychological symptoms from continued substance use regardless of the problems it creates. With addiction, there is a layer of compulsive drug seeking and use, for example, with little regards for the consequences. It’s believed that drug abuse, for instance, changes the structure of the brain and how it functions, which can lead to self-destructive behaviors like an addiction.

Addiction is a Mental Disorder, While Substance Abuse Can Be an Individual Choice

One of the biggest differences between substance abuse and addiction is that substance abuse is a behavioral issue, while addiction is a mental disorder. A significant defining feature of addiction is that the addict is increasingly unable to control his or her use of the substance, be it an illicit drug, alcohol or prescription painkillers. Addiction is characterized by the inability to reduce one’s use of a controlled substance, despite the desire to do so, an intense urge or impulse to use the substance and withdrawal, increased loss of inhibitions and impaired judgement, and a high tolerance for the effects of the drug, among other components.

When it comes to engaging in substance abuse, it boils down to an individual choosing to participate in the behavior. An individual chooses to binge drinking or use prescription opioids to achieve a euphoric state, for example. At this point, a substance use disorder has not yet developed.

It is wise not to perceive chronic drug abuse as less devastating than drug addiction because both can be damaging to the user’s life. Substance abuse can morph into an addiction if an individual becomes dependent on the substance. Both issues are different and can be related, and can have serious consequences. Substance abuse is a behavioral problem that emerges as a result of an individual’s choice, while addiction is a mental disorder that impacts the brain. It’s essential to prevent substance abuse from developing into an addiction. Individuals can get help to combat substance abuse and addiction and improve their lives immensely.


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