What Is Chemical Dependency?

Sad woman crying
Chemical dependency is the technical term for addiction. Called a “substance use disorder” the diagnostic criteria for addiction includes a chemical dependency on drugs and/or alcohol. There is a difference between chemical dependency and substance abuse, though chemical dependency is the result of substance abuse. Chemical dependency is considered to be the last stage in the addiction process when the choice to abuse drugs and alcohol is no longer really a choice. The body and the brain become completely chemically dependent upon the chemical substances being abused. In order to perform basic functions, like getting out of bed, the brain and body necessitate the chemical presence of drugs and alcohol. At this point, any idea of manageability or control is gone.

It starts with recreational use

Substance abuse can be defined as the misuse of any substance outside of that substance’s purpose. Recreational use isn’t necessarily intentional for the sake of getting high. Many parents, for example, give their children a dose of grown-up medication as needed. Perhaps a benzodiazepine like Xanax or Klonopin, anti-anxiety medications, to calm down a hyperventilating temper tantrum. The opioid epidemic currently sweeping the nation was partially created by people needing to take more of their opioid prescription painkiller medication in order to continue relieving the chronic pain they were experiencing. This use isn’t recreational, but seems innocent and necessary at the time. In other cases, recreational use is with the intention to get intoxicated. Teenagers get drunk for the first time. College students experiment with drugs. For all of these cases, the substance in question is being used beyond its purpose. How the individual brain reacts to recreational use of drugs and alcohol is what will define the trajectory of addiction.


Addiction doesn’t happen to everyone

Two people can consume the same amount of drugs and alcohol. One might become chemically dependent and one might not. The brain responds to the presence of chemical substances based on genetic predisposition, social circumstances, and any co-occurring mental heath conditions. What the brain reacts to specifically is the production of dopamine caused by chemical substances. Dopamine is a brain chemical which sends messages of pleasure throughout the brain. The brain more likely to become chemically dependent will take extra notice of these pleasure messages and turn the memory association of chemical substances into something much greater than it is. Ongoing, the more chemicals consumed, the more dopamine produced, the more dependent the brain becomes. Eventually, the brain cannot produce dopamine without chemical substances anymore. Physically and mentally sick, the entire self becomes chemically dependent.


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