Tolerance, dependence, and addiction are often used interchangeably by the general public, but these terms have distinctly different meanings. Understanding how tolerance and dependence are related to addiction can help you make a more informed decision about the need to seek addiction treatment for yourself or your loved one.
The Difference Between Tolerance & Dependence
Tolerance simply means that a person’s body has adapted to a particular substance. When a substance is used regularly, a person will gradually require a higher dose to achieve the same effect.
Alcohol consumption provides a clear look at the effects of tolerance. A person who doesn’t drink regularly may start to feel tipsy after two or three drinks, but someone who drinks every day will require a much higher level of alcohol consumption to feel noticeably impaired. This pattern holds true even when you account for the effects of gender, height, weight, muscle mass, hormone levels, and ethnicity.
Dependence means that the brain will require a substance for it to function normally. If substance use is discontinued, the person experiences withdrawal symptoms that can include signs of physical discomfort such as headache or upset stomach as well as mood changes such as depression and anxiety.
How long it takes for dependence to develop varies widely depending on the substance being used. For example, many benzodiazepines—even when taken as directed by a doctor—can create physical dependence in as little as three to four weeks. When this happens, a person must be slowly weaned off the drug to avoid problematic withdrawal symptoms.
Signs of Addiction
Tolerance occurs before dependence. Both are considered warning signs of addiction. However, tolerance and dependence alone aren’t proof that a person has a substance use disorder because it’s possible for both to occur when a medication is being taken for a legitimate medical reason and a person is being closely monitored by their healthcare provider. For example, it’s common for a person to exhibit both tolerance and dependence when taking an antidepressant medication—but antidepressants are not addictive and will not get a person “high” under any circumstances.
On the flip side, it’s possible for a person to be addicted to a substance without experiencing either tolerance or dependence. This can often be seen in marijuana users who are using the drug to self-medicate anxiety. They can become psychologically dependent on the drug to manage their mental health without experiencing a true physical tolerance or any of the withdrawal symptoms that suggest a physical dependence.
Additional signs that can help you determine if a person may be in need of addiction treatment include:
- Decreased performance at work or school
- Trouble maintaining relationships with loved ones
- Lack of interest in hobbies or activities that were once a source of pleasure
- Poor personal hygiene
- Sleeping noticeably more or less than usual
- Mood swings, aggressiveness, or irritability
- Unexplained financial problems or stealing from others to fund an addiction
- Driving under the influence, having unsafe sex, or engaging in other types of risky behavior
Addiction is a chronic illness with both biological and environmental triggers. It’s not caused by a lack of willpower, which means a person needs access to comprehensive care from trained professionals to build the foundation for lasting sobriety.
At Mountain Laurel Recovery Center, we provide a full continuum of care for men and women with substance use disorders. Treatment plans are personalized to fit individual needs, but often include detox followed by intensive individual, group, and family counseling and medication-assisted treatment as appropriate. We also offer a wide range of holistic services that promote healthy lifestyle habits such as proper nutrition, regular exercise, and stress management.
Graduates of our Pennsylvania residential addiction treatment center can participate in our extended care program to help ease the transition back to independent living. This program provides intensive outpatient treatment, 12-Step participation, and sponsorship support in a clean and healthy living space.
No matter what struggles a person has faced in the past, we believe there’s always hope for recovery. If you’re interested in treatment for yourself or your loved one, our admissions counselors will be happy to answer any questions that you may have about our holistic, wellness-driven approach to achieving and maintaining abstinence.