Physiological vs. Physical Addiction: What You Should Know

May 12, 2023

4 mins

Never Alone Recovery


Addiction affects 21M+ in the US, with two classes of symptoms: Physiological addiction alters mood/behavior, while physical addiction impacts the body. Treatment must address both for successful recovery.

A reported 21 million people suffer from some form of addiction in the US alone. With both legal and illegal substances available for consumption, the true numbers, around the globe, must exceed reported estimates. 

Everyone with an addiction experiences a unique blend of symptoms. Some people suffer from mental and hormonal changes that alter their mood and drive them to indulge in their drug of choice to return to a mental health baseline. Others experience physical sensations that make everyday life unmanageable until they treat those symptoms through whatever means necessary. 

Most people experience some combination of these two “types'' of addiction. Physiological addiction affects the mind, while physical addiction affects the body. 

Physiological Addiction 

Exposure to harmful substances alters brain chemistry, which, in turn, controls one's mood, attitude, and behaviors. Consider teenage mood swings introduced by the chaotic hormonal cocktails of the adolescent mind as another example of hormones influencing behavior. 

Drug use releases a lot of “feel-good” neurotransmitters. In many cases, the dopamine rush equals or exceeds the natural dopamine releases of everyday life, often inciting the unending chase to recapture what they'd experienced that very first time. But what's happening in the brain during this process?

Over time, the brain adjusts to higher neurotransmitter levels and builds a tolerance. It needs more and more dopamine to reach the same high. This desensitization has two effects: 

  1. The high points of everyday life lose their impact. An addict’s drug of choice becomes one of their few pleasures. 
  2. An addict needs more and more of the same substance to achieve the same effect, which increases financial costs and overdose risk.

The symptoms of physiological addiction affect mood, behavior, and everyday functions when the drug runs out or becomes inaccessible. These symptoms emerge in rehab or detox and often deter recovery efforts as the early stages of withdrawal set in. These symptoms include anxiety, cravings, depression, disturbed sleep (i.e. too much or too little), and irritability.

Brain chemistry controls one's mood, attitude, and behaviors. Consider... the chaotic hormonal cocktail of the adolescent mind as an example.

Elevated symptoms can emerge fast enough to warn the patient and their loved ones that they may need medical intervention, often escalating over time. The changes in behavior become a new norm and the disparity becomes clear only in retrospect. 

Instead of becoming intoxicated, most patients in the throes of addiction use alcohol or drugs merely to stabilize. In response to the frequent substance use, the brain has tapered the production of hormones naturally; this means that as the effects of the intoxicants wear off, a drug user will find himself or herself in a major deficit of the neurochemicals and hormones associated with happiness, calm, stress relief, and pain relief. There have even been colloquialisms that have emerged around this phenomenon, including "smokers’ anxiety" and "hair of the dog" in reference to the irritability from the onset of sobriety, which could indicate a physiological addiction.

The physiological addiction then takes on a psychological and emotional form. Addicts feel they need the drug to function, and the subconscious fear of the withdrawal symptoms results in a perspective shift where the goal of substance use is more to just keep withdrawal at bay than to become intoxicated. 

Physical Addiction 

Physical addiction, as the name implies, affects the body. Following the same trajectory as physiological addiction, physical addiction escalates as the body and brain build an increased tolerance to the drug’s effects. The brain demands more and more of the drug as the body loses its ability to handle it. 

Normally, the liver and kidneys filter toxins from the blood as their cells break down. With chronic substance abuse, these organs get overstressed, increasing the potential for an overdose. With the failure of these systems comes classic symptoms like tremors, nausea, vomiting, fever, chills, and/or diarrhea.

These symptoms sound more common—who hasn’t heard of someone throwing up after a few too many drinks? The more apparent symptoms indicate to the patient and those around them that they require intervention, perhaps severe. 

The False Dichotomy

If these two addictions sound similar, then you got the right idea. Psychological addiction alters the mind and its behaviors, but it, like so many other parts of mental health, arises from a physical mechanism. In this case, hormones. 

In the past, mind-body dualism—the idea that treatments for mental and physical maladies cannot affect one another—led to inadequate and ineffective treatment for addiction and other illnesses. 

Complete recovery, from any illness, needs both physical and mental treatment. The physical mechanism of brain chemicals drives both the mental and material aspects of addiction and recovery. 

What the Combination Means for Recovery

Because of the link between physiological and physical addiction, you can’t really treat one without treating the other. Even the best medical detox program in the world will mean nothing if the underlying cause of the substance abuse remains. Even though the chemical reliance faded, the patient still associates the drug with pleasurable sensations. If not addressed, that craving persists, and continues to persist, throughout the patient’s life. 

Thus, while the two come from similar mental mechanisms and have some overlap, but are not the same. Treatment should aim to treat both parts at the same time. 

Medication can sometimes be employed to address acute withdrawal symptoms and ease the recovery process while the patient lowers their tolerance. The best approaches to recovery combine that physical treatment with a variety of therapies, from classics like group therapy to experiential supplements like music therapy and adventure therapy. 

Knowledge is Power with Never Alone Recovery 

At Never Alone Recovery, we believe in free access to valuable information that can help patients cope with both their physiological symptoms and physical symptoms. We combine our free rehab placement options with as much information as possible to ensure readers and patients can make informed decisions about their loved ones’ care. 

Check out our eBook, available as a free download, or contact us for more information about our drug rehab placement services.

We're On Medium!

We're sharing the recovery stories of our community members. Be sure to check out Never Alone Recovery on Medium to read those featured stories.



Get Your Free Consultation Now

No matter where you are or what you're going through, send us a secure message and someone from our team will get back to you.

Check Out Our eBook
Surviving Your Loved One's Addiction


$19.95 Value
Inside spread with pullquote