What’s The Difference Between Physical and Psychological Addiction?

Even though all addictions are defined by a loss of control, misusing different substances can affect people in different ways. Some addictions, for example, affect a person cognitively, changing the way their mind functions. Other addictions primarily affect the body, triggering adverse side effects and physical symptoms. Certain substance use disorders have characteristics of both physical and psychological dependence. Although all types of addictions cause harm, there are considerable differences between physical and psychological addiction. Understanding those differences and recognizing the signs and symptoms of each type of addiction can help determine the best course of treatment.

Physical vs. Psychological Addiction: Understanding the Difference

Addiction is a chronic condition characterized by compulsive behavior that people continue to engage in despite harmful consequences. Some people addicted to toxic substances don’t display any physical symptoms. Instead, they have a perceived need that drives their compulsive behavior. Other people may have physical symptoms but may appear mentally, cognitively, psychologically, and emotionally fine. That’s why it’s essential to understand the difference between physical and psychological addiction.

The key difference between physical and psychological addiction is how the substance affects the person using it. Physical addiction affects the body, while psychological addiction affects how people behave. Another difference between physical and psychological addiction is the driving force behind compulsive behavior. Individuals with a physical addiction continue abusing substances to avoid experiencing uncomfortable physical symptoms. People with a psychological addiction typically continue using their substance of choice because they need it to maintain their emotional well-being and mental health.

Understanding Physical Addiction

Individuals develop a physical addiction when the cells in their body can’t function correctly without the presence of drugs or alcohol. When drugs or alcohol aren’t present, the cells malfunction, and this malfunctioning triggers symptoms of withdrawal. Even though the symptoms can vary from person to person, they often include:

  • Lack of sleep. Sleep is one of the body’s most essential physical functions. Substances like drugs and alcohol disrupt this function, often causing insomnia, or a chronic lack of sleep. Unfortunately, not sleeping properly can lead to other health challenges that can negatively affect the body. Research shows that sleep deprivation can lead to weight gain, increase the risk of diabetes and heart disease, weaken the immune system, cause memory issues, and lead to brain fog.
  • Trembling and shaking. Tremors, which are usually caused by a problem in brain regions that control movement, can cause a rhythmic shaking in the hands, arms, legs, or torso, a shaky voice, and difficulty writing or drawing. Trembling can also make holding and controlling a utensil challenging. The malfunctioning cells in the body can also cause trembling, or uncontrolled shaking.
  • Gastrointestinal issues and abdominal pain. Constipation and diarrhea are two of the most common gastrointestinal problems people with a physical addiction experience. Being constipated can cause bloating and diarrhea, leading to dehydration and other health problems such as kidney stones or kidney failure.
  • Seizures. Anything that interrupts the typical connections between nerve cells in the brain can cause a seizure, a sudden and uncontrolled action that disturbs brain wave patterns. In addition to uncontrollable jerking movements, seizures can also cause temporary confusion, a loss of consciousness, a staring spell, and emotional symptoms such as fear or anxiety.

Other symptoms commonly associated with physical addiction include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Irritability
  • Dry mouth
  • Blackouts
  • Shortness of breath
  • Blood pressure changes
  • Headaches
  • Pulse rate changes
  • Body aches

Substances Known To Cause Physical Addiction

Even though abusing any substance can lead to physical addiction, some substances are particularly associated with physical addiction. They include:

  • Opioids such as methadone, fentanyl, and heroin
  • Benzodiazepines such as Xanax, Valium, Klonopin, and Ativan
  • Barbiturates
  • Alcohol
  • Nicotine

Understanding Psychological Addiction

Unlike a physical addiction, a psychological addiction does not cause symptoms when drugs or alcohol aren’t present in the body. Instead, individuals with a psychological addiction have a compulsion, or a perceived need, to use their preferred substance. In other words, people with a psychological addiction believe that they have to use drugs or alcohol to enjoy a night out on the town, for example. Because of this perceived need, individuals become consumed with their substance of choice. When they can’t obtain or consume the substance, they can be downtrodden, anxious, and irritable. Psychological addictions are often associated with cravings, irritability, fatigue, and trouble eating.

Psychological addiction can also cause:

  • Depression. Since individuals with psychological addiction believe they need drugs or alcohol, not having their preferred substance can make them depressed. This can cause symptoms of a low mood, difficulty concentrating, or feelings of worthlessness. Some individuals grappling with a psychological addiction might even have thoughts of harming themselves when they don’t have drugs or alcohol.
  • Obsession. Since psychological addiction is based on a perceived need, many individuals grappling with this condition tend to become obsessed. Often, this means that the only thing that matters to the individual is getting and using the substance. This pattern of behavior often leads people to do things they normally wouldn’t do.
  • Anger. Most psychological addictions are based on two things: a perceived emotional need and a person’s behavior. Typically, the compulsive need determines the behavior. Because of this, when individuals can’t obtain their preferred substance, they often become angry and irritable, leading to sudden and unexpected outbursts.

Other symptoms of psychological addiction include:

  • Denial
  • An inability to imagine coping without the substance
  • Restlessness
  • Anxiety
  • Insomnia
  • Mood swings
  • Obsessive compulsive thoughts
  • Intense cravings

Evidence-Based Treatment For Physical and Psychological Addiction

Although different, both physical and psychological addictions can wreak havoc on a person’s life. Physical addictions can weaken the body and trigger a wide range of painful and uncomfortable symptoms. Psychological conditions can cause mental health challenges that lead to violent and unpredictable behavior. The good news is both kinds of addictions can be treated.

Our addiction treatment programs combine world-class brain science and compassionate clinical care. Contact us today if you or someone you love is ready to regain control of their life. We want to help you live a thriving, enjoyable, purposeful, and sober life.

Innovative, Evidence-Based Therapies

Because mental health and addiction concerns are so often interconnected, we utilize research-based approaches with evidence-based outcomes that promote overall healing and recovery.

Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS)

This low-impact magnetic stimulation activates neurons inside the brain, relieving symptoms associated with depression and anxiety.

qEEG/Brain Mapping

Using brain scanning and readings, we create a map of our patients’ brains, helping us develop more targeted and effective treatments.


This process assists patients in visualizing their own brain functionality through continuous EEG readings.

Spravato Therapy

We use carefully monitored doses of Spravato to help patients struggling with complex mental health disorders, including severe depression.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Patients use this practice to help reframe intrusive or negative thought patterns and develop coping techniques for long-term recovery.

Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)

This practice helps patients learn to regulate emotions, communicate more effectively, and process their own thoughts and feelings..

Eye Movement Desensitization (EMDR)

Licensed and trained therapists guide patients through this technique for managing stress and anxiety on an ongoing basis.

Individual Therapy

Patients experience one-on-one therapy sessions with a licensed therapist to provide a safe and private place to recover and heal.

Group/Family Therapy

Patients can practice the skills and techniques they have learned in treatment with others in a safe, therapist-guided space.

Contact StoneRidge Centers

5940 E. Copper Hill Dr. Ste B & E, Prescott Valley, AZ. 86314

We exercise progressive, leading brain science in our treatment approach for patients in our community and across the country who are struggling with mental health and addiction challenges.