Our bodies are fearfully and wonderfully made, and with that comes complexity in how they interact with the world around us. The things that we consume by ingesting them into either our bodies or minds, leave their mark upon us. That makes it especially important for us to understand what we are putting into our bodies, how it affects us, and the various ways we can overcome any negative side effects of what we consume.

One possible consequence of ingesting certain substances such as alcohol, marijuana, stimulants, or even prescription medication for pain or anxiety, is developing a chemical dependence on them. That dependence can negatively affect how your body functions and can become detrimental to your sense of wellbeing.

What chemical dependence is and isn’t

There may be confusion between substance abuse and chemical dependence. Often, the two terms are used interchangeably, but they point to distinct, though related, conditions.

While the American Psychological Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of mental disorders (DSM-5) lists both chemical dependence and substance abuse together under the bracket “substance use disorder,” the two terms don’t overlap neatly in practice. For the sake of clarity, we can distinguish between chemical dependence, substance abuse, and addiction, though, as we noted earlier, these concepts are intricately connected.

Chemical dependence is a normal biological reaction to an addictive chemical. Chemicals such as opioids, for instance, bind to receptors in the brain, causing the increased release of dopamine.

If a person who struggles with chronic pain is placed on a regimen of opioids, the interaction between the medication and the person’s central nervous system will more than likely generate a chemical dependence on those medications as their neurons adapt to the presence of the medication and only function normally under those circumstances.

A person can thus become chemically dependent through the normal use of their prescribed medication. You don’t have to abuse medication to become chemically dependent on it.

Over time, that chemical dependence will likely be characterized by tolerance and withdrawal. Tolerance is when the body gets used to the presence of the drug such that higher doses become necessary to attain a similar effect, while withdrawal is when the body reacts negatively to the removal of the drug from your system.

When the drug is withdrawn, several physiological reactions occur, and these can be mild, such as when one stops taking caffeine, or life-threatening, such as when a person who is chemically dependent on alcohol decides to go cold turkey. While it is possible to have a physical dependence on a substance without being addicted to it, substance dependencies frequently lead to addiction.

Substance abuse occurs when a person uses alcohol, prescription medicine, and other legal and illegal substances too much or in the wrong way. Substance abuse, however, differs from addiction in that while many people with substance abuse problems can quit or change their unhealthy behavior.

Addiction is a disease in which a person can’t stop using even when it causes them harm and damages relationships. An addicted person typically is a substance abuser, and they are chemically dependent on the substance they abuse.

To sum up, chemical dependence is not the same thing as substance abuse or addiction, but they are closely connected. The APA uses the broader term “substance use disorder” to include all three terms, and it classifies substance use disorders as mild, moderate, or severe.

The APA no longer uses terms such as “abuse” or “dependence” to signify the severity of an addiction, and one of the reasons for using the term “substance use disorder” was the confusion surrounding the word “dependence,” and that the term “substance use disorder” functions as a more inclusive term to provide help for those who may need it even when they may not have an addiction.

It is not clear what causes substance abuse and chemical dependence, though multiple factors such as genetic vulnerability, social and peer pressures, environmental stressors, individual personality characteristics, and psychiatric problems play a role.

Substances that people frequently become dependent on and that are routinely abused include marijuana, alcohol, prescription medication such as pain and anxiety medication, methamphetamine, cocaine, inhalants, opiates, and hallucinogens.

What are the signs of chemical dependence?

Your family doctor, healthcare provider, psychiatrist, or qualified mental health professional can help to diagnose whether you have a chemical dependence on a drug or are abusing a particular substance. Depending on the substance, the frequency of use, and the length of time since your last use of it, the doctor may note the following:

  • Weight loss
  • Constant fatigue
  • Seizures and hallucinations
  • Little concern for hygiene
  • Unexpected problems with heart rate or blood pressure
  • Depression, agitation, anxiety, irritability, or problems with sleeping

Some of the signs of chemical dependence and substance abuse may include:

  • constantly thinking about getting or using the drug
  • needing more of the drug to get an equivalent effect
  • using the drug even though aware of the physical, psychological, economic, and family or social problems that are being caused by ongoing use
  • having withdrawal symptoms if one decreases or stops using the drug
  • spending a lot of time getting, using, and recovering from the effects of using drugs
  • withdrawing from social and recreational activities
  • taking risks, such as sexual risks or driving under the influence of a substance
  • work performance suffering due to substance abuse
  • risking financial security to access the substance

The impact of chemical dependence

When chemical dependence becomes a problem and leads to substance abuse or addiction, it can have a profound impact on a person’s health, relationships, and overall wellbeing. A person may begin to lie, especially about how much they are using or drinking, and they may begin to avoid friends and family members. The complications of substance abuse or chemical dependence will vary depending on the drug or substance in question, and they may include:

  • Sleep disturbances
  • Organ damage, such as liver and heart damage
  • Increased risk for infections, such as HIV and other sexually transmitted infections
  • Fatal accidental overdoses
  • Respiratory conditions such as pneumonia and tuberculosis
  • Causing injuries to yourself or other people
  • Weight loss
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Psychosis
  • Depression, thoughts of suicide, and feeling hopeless
  • Suicide attempts
  • Anxiety
  • Giving up activities you used to enjoy, such as sports or spending time with non-using friends

How does one deal with chemical dependency?

In some instances, chemical dependence isn’t a bad thing or something that a person can overcome. For the individual who is using the medication as prescribed and for whom there are few to no alternatives, for example, those with chronic pain, chemical dependence may be an inevitable reality with which they must simply cope.

However, where alternatives exist, or where a person’s dependence is linked to substance abuse and/or addiction, there are options available for treatment that should be pursued. What treatment looks like, however, will vary depending on the circumstances.

If the substance that one is dependent on affects the reward pathways of the brain, and they present with severe substance use disorder, long-term treatment may be required, and this may involve residential addiction treatment, medical detoxification, and aftercare to develop emotional, biological, and spiritual coping mechanisms that help the individual to retrain their reward pathways and pave the way for long-term recovery.

For those with a chemical dependence on substances that don’t necessarily affect the reward pathways of the brain, their doctor can help them by developing a detoxification protocol. This most often involves decreasing the dosage of the medication so that it is gradually eliminated from the brain.

Small doses, reduced over time, lessen the impact on the system and the side effects of withdrawal. Your doctor will figure out the best treatment for you based on your age, your ability to handle certain medications or therapies, your preference, and how much the chemical dependence or substance abuse has affected you physiologically and otherwise.

If one’s chemical dependence has evolved into substance abuse and addiction, it’s important to remember that simply stopping is often not an easy option. Addiction treatment is complex; treatment programs involve many different components and are typically based on the type of substance being abused. These programs include:

  • behavioral therapy and counseling for the individual and any family affected
  • detoxification, where necessary
  • medication
  • long-term medical follow-up and support

Christian Counseling for Addiction

You are precious, and anything that undermines the full and vibrant life God intended for his creation needs to be addressed. What affects you as an individual isn’t limited to you, alone. When you struggle, the people around you that love and care for you are also affected.

Chemical dependence can severely undermine your health and sense of wellbeing, but Christian counseling can help you recover your health and wholeness. We were never meant to be bound by anything or become subject to anything in creation, and Christian counseling, making use of behavioral therapy and support for you and your family, provides the space you need to work through your recovery and move beyond chemical dependence.

With compassion and knowledge, your counselor will develop a treatment plan tailored to your needs to address your substance dependence. Do not hesitate to reach out to find out more about the counseling and support available for chemical dependence. Browse our counselor directory or contact our reception to begin your journey toward freedom and wholeness.

“Addiction”, Courtesy of Annie Spratt, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Through the Tunnel”, Courtesy of Taylor Deas-Melesh, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Enjoying the Fresh Air”, Courtesy of Marcos Paulo Prado, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Night Air”, Courtesy of Jeffery Erhunse, Unsplash.com, CC0 License


Articles are intended for informational purposes only and do not constitute medical advice; the Content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. All opinions expressed by authors and quoted sources are their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors, publishers or editorial boards of Mill Creek Christian Counseling. This website does not recommend or endorse any specific tests, physicians, products, procedures, opinions, or other information that may be mentioned on the Site. Reliance on any information provided by this website is solely at your own risk.