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Psychological dependence refers to an emotional state that develops after using drugs or performing another behavior for a period of time. This lesson will provide you with an overview of what psychological dependence is and the risk factors for developing psychological dependence.

What is Psychological Dependence?

Imagine yourself engaged in your favorite activity. It could be playing video games, reading a book, socializing with friends, running, or drinking alcohol.

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Think about the way the activity makes you feel. Generally, individuals report feeling emotionally high when fully engaged in their favorite activities. They report happiness, joy, and a desire to continue the activity. Now imagine how you feel when you haven’t completed the activity in some time.

Most people would report a desire, a need, or a craving to participate in their favorite activity.Psychological dependence is a change in emotional state that occurs after using a substance or engaging in a behavior over a period of time. This change in emotional state is a result of changes in brain chemicals. It can cause cravings, motivation to seek out the substance or behavior, irritability, anxiety, or general dissatisfaction when withdrawing from the substance or activity.

Drug Use

In many cases, psychological dependence is examined in conjunction with drug use. When an individual uses an addictive drug, the drug produces feelings of euphoria, happiness, and pleasure by changing the way that cells in the brain communicate. Two important neurotransmitters (chemical messengers) in the brain that are influenced by drugs include dopamine and opioids.

Many drugs of addiction cause these neurotransmitters to be released, thus allowing the user to feel pleasure and euphoria.When the drug leaves the body, the levels of neurotransmitters change, producing emotional dissatisfaction in an individual. If the person continues the drug use over time, he or she might become dependent on the substance to produce a certain emotional state. In this case, psychological dependence has occurred. This leads to an individual using the drug compulsively to attain certain feelings. An example of this might be someone using alcohol on a daily basis to cope with stressors, or an individual smoking to calm themselves down.

When the individual is not using the drug, they have obsessive thoughts about using the drug again, cravings for the drug, irritability, and high levels of motivation to seek out the drug again. These symptoms characterize psychological dependence.

Addiction and Physical Dependence

With respect to drug use, it’s important to differentiate between psychological dependence and physical dependence. Physical dependence refers to physical changes in the body that occur after drug use. For example, the symptoms of a hangover – a headache, dehydration, stomach ache – are physical changes that occur after the use of alcohol.

If alcohol use continues over time, an individual might become dependent on alcohol to make those physical changes go away. Thus, the major difference between psychological dependence and physical dependence is that psychological dependence refers to changes in mood and craving, while physical dependence refers to physical symptoms in the body.It’s also important to note that the presence of psychological dependence and/or physical dependence does not mean that an individual is addicted to a substance.

Rather, these behaviors are part of addiction. Their presence might indicate that an individual is on the road to addiction, but they are only part of addiction as defined by the Diagnostic and Statistics Manual-5 (DSM-5).

Behavior

As you have just learned, psychological dependence develops over time as a result of changes in the way the brain communicates and responds. In substance abuse, it is easy to see how these changes in the brain occur, because the drug or substance has a specific target in the brain that is changed as a result of using the drug. In looking beyond drugs at addictive behaviors, the brain changes are not as noticeable, but they still exist. Activities that are pleasurable to us produce dopamine and opioids in the brain that make us feel good. The more we engage in them, the more our brain becomes dependent upon these activities for us to achieve a certain emotional state.

As a result, when we are not engaged in them we tend to feel dissatisfied and have a desire to seek out the behavior. As we seek out the behavior, we get into a cycle of psychological dependence that can have negative effects on many aspects of our life, including financially and socially.It is also important to note that just enjoying an activity or wanting to participate in an activity does not constitute dependence on that activity. Just because you love riding your bike doesn’t mean you’re psychologically dependent on the activity.

Rather, psychological dependence occurs when there are marked changes in mood, emotional well-being, craving, and obsession that occur when you don’t do the activity. These changes interfere with other aspects of life, including work, sleep, social activities, relationships, etc.

Risk Factors

Psychological dependence can occur for a variety of reasons. In some cases, the risk factors for development of psychological dependence are related to the specific substance or behavior that one becomes dependent on. However, research looking at addiction has found some general factors that might lead to a higher risk for dependence and addiction.

Factors that might put one at higher risk for psychological dependence include past exposure to violence, environmental stressors, anxiety, or other mood disorders. Personality variables, such as neuroticism, low self-control, low self-regulation, low self-esteem, or loneliness can also be factors. People who have a family history of psychological dependence can also be at risk.

Lesson Summary

Psychological dependence is a change in emotional state that occurs after using a substance or engaging in a behavior over a period of time.

It is characterized by changes in mood, emotional well-being, craving, and obsession that occur with use of a substance or engaging in an activity. It can lead to problems in life. Individuals who have a past history of violence, are exposed to environmental stressors, have problems with mood disorders, have specific personality traits, or have a family history of psychological dependence may be at risk.

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