While the terms ‘drug abuse’ and ‘drug addiction’ are often used interchangeably, the truth is they are very different conditions. One is describing a usage of drugs outside of cultural norms, and the other is describing a behavioral disorder where the drug is of paramount importance to all other things in a person’s life.

Drug Abuse or Addiction?

Drug abuse is the use of drugs in any way considered abnormal. There may be psychological dependence and even physical withdrawals, but not all drug abusers are actually addicted. This can be puzzling and confusing to understand. A common misnomer is that drugs alone are ‘addicting’ and that ‘anyone’ can become addicted. This is not the case. Only those with these different neurophysiological responses will develop true addictions to substances. For instance, you may feel you ‘need’ caffeine, but you can go a day without it and have little more than a headache. Now, if you do not get your daily caffeine and you hold someone up at gunpoint to get it – well, you may be an addict. That is an extreme example, but you get the idea.

Examples of drug abuse but not addiction:

Any use of an illicit substance is considered drug abuse even if the substance is rarely used. You may know someone who uses an illicit substance like cocaine ‘every once in a while.’ I knew someone who did Ecstasy only on New Year’s Eve. Never any other time. This is an example of abuse, but not addiction. The drug did not become of paramount importance to them, shutting out all other interests.

Brain Reward Systems

It is said that the brains of addicts are actually ‘wired differently’ than those of non-addicts. That being said, this means that no pre-existing conditions or unique personality types need to be present for addiction to occur. Life can be going along just fine, but once an illicit substance is introduced and the addict begins their addiction, there is usually no stopping them until some type of intervention or consequences occur. You have heard people say that they have an ‘addictive personality’ – maybe you feel that way about yourself. Well, science tells us that there is truth in that, but it’s not the personality as much as the brain.

Underlying Conditions

Drug abuse, by definition, likely has an underlying condition associated with it. Just as drug addicts do not need to have any sort of trauma, mental illness or ‘reason’ to start using, those who continually abuse drugs without ever developing an addiction are usually doing so because something else is co-occurring. This is not to say that other disorders cannot co-occur with addiction, because they can and do, but in most cases of chronic abuse without addiction presenting, you will find underlying conditions. Treatment helps get to the root causes and conditions around your usage, so if you are not sure if you are simply an abuser or if you are an addict, treatment can help sort that out.

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