Psychological Dependence: Definition & Risk Factors

Lesson Transcript
Gina Mitchell
Expert Contributor
Lesley Chapel

Lesley has taught American and World History at the university level for the past seven years. She has a Master's degree in History.

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. Updated: 08/31/2020

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. 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.

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  • 0:00 What is Psychological…
  • 1:06 Drug Use
  • 2:29 Addiction & Physical…
  • 3:32 Behavior
  • 5:01 Risk Factors
  • 5:51 Lesson Summary
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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).

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Additional Activities

Prompts About Psychological Dependence:

Study Prompt:

Make a set of flashcards with the definitions of all the terms in bold from the lesson (psychological dependence, dopamine, opioids, physical dependence).

Example: Physical dependence is different from psychological dependence, as the former refers to changes in the physical body.

Essay Prompt 1:

Write an essay of at least three to four paragraphs that explains the connection between psychological dependence and drug use.

Example: The chemical levels in neurotransmitters decrease as drugs exit the body, which causes the drug user to develop psychological dependence on the drug.

Essay Prompt 2:

In at least three to four paragraphs, write an essay that discusses how psychological dependence on substances can alter a person's behaviors. Also address the differences between simply enjoying something and developing a psychological dependence on it.

Example: Psychological dependence means that a person's emotional well-being is unstable or reduced when they do not have access to the substance or activity they are dependent on.

Graphic Organizer Prompt 1:

Create a poster, chart, or some other type of graphic organizer that shows the signs of physical dependence and the difference between physical dependence and psychological dependence.

Example: Physical dependence means that a person needs to use a substance in order to abate undesirable physical symptoms, such as nausea.

Graphic Organizer Prompt 2:

Make a poster, chart, or some other type of graphic organizer that lists the risks factors for psychological dependence.

Example: Low self-esteem.

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