When talking about substance use, people tend to use tolerance, dependence, and addiction interchangeably, although they have different definitions. Each term means something different about the impact drugs have on a person’s body and mind. While tolerance, dependence, and addiction are all terms that stem from substance use, using them interchangeably can negatively affect how people view their substance use tendencies and can therefore get in the way of knowing when to receive treatment.

Learning the difference between these three terms is crucial to seeking the proper treatment and support necessary for those struggling with substance use disorder (SUD), regardless of what phase they may find themselves in when they seek treatment. In order to make the process of figuring out what stage you’re in less overwhelming and confusing, it is essential to understand the difference between tolerance, dependence, and addiction.

Tolerance vs. Dependence

Before a person develops a dependence on a substance, tolerance takes place. Tolerance happens when your body becomes used to a substance because it’s been used for an extended period of time. When someone develops a tolerance to a substance, their body requires a higher dose in order to feel the effects that were felt when the substance first started being used. Once tolerance is built, it will likely lead to dependence, which can be characterized by both the symptoms of tolerance and withdrawal.

Dependence occurs when a person stops using a drug and has withdrawal symptoms. When you are dependent on drugs or alcohol, you may feel that you cannot function normally on a day-to-day basis without using a substance. At this time, you may be aware of what is going on, but you may continue to use the substance to avoid withdrawal symptoms.

Tolerance and Dependence as Substance Use Disorder Criteria

There are 11 criteria – as outlined in the DSM 5 – used to diagnose SUD. Of these 11 criteria, both tolerance and dependence are included. The criteria used to diagnose SUD includes:

#1. Substances are often taken in larger amounts over a longer period than intended

#2. Persistent desire or unsuccessful effort to cut down or control substance use

#3. Significant amount of time spent in activities necessary to obtain, use, and recover from substances

#4. Cravings or urges to use substances

#5. Substance use causes failure to fulfill obligations at work, school, or home

#6. Continued substance use despite social or interpersonal problems caused or exacerbated by substance use

#7. Important social, occupational, or recreational activities are given up because of substance use

#8. Continued use even in hazardous situations

#9. Substance use continues despite knowledge of persistent physical or psychological problems that are caused or exacerbated by using substances

#10. Tolerance

#11. Dependence

Those who meet two or three criteria for SUD are considered to have a “mild” disorder, four or five are considered “moderate,” and six or more symptoms are considered “severe.” If you are struggling with tolerance and dependence, you meet the diagnostic criteria for SUD. However, you may not need the same treatment interventions as someone with moderate or severe SUD.

A Deeper Look at Addiction

The most severe form of SUD is also called addiction. While tolerance and dependence are physiological changes that impact the body, addiction is also about behavior. Addiction causes a person to engage in continuous use of a substance even after it has resulted in negative consequences.

Often, people struggling with addiction are also struggling in other areas of their lives, such as work and relationships. The behaviors people portray when they are struggling with addiction tend to be seen as irrational, impulsive, and destructive to the self and others. The use of a substance has become the main focal point for the person who is struggling, and therefore other elements of the person’s life are pushed to the outskirts.

This shift in focus is a behavior change caused by biochemical changes that have taken place in the brain due to prolonged substance abuse. It is important to note that addiction is a disease, and in order to heal, treatment may be necessary. However, you do not need to wait until your SUD turns severe to seek treatment.

When to Get Help

Understanding the differences between tolerance, dependence, and addiction makes it possible for people living with SUD to see where they are and seek out the best treatment possible. By gaining an understanding of these terms, individuals can get help sooner if they notice the signs of tolerance and dependence. This gives you an option to seek early intervention treatments before SUD gets severe and affects every area of your life.

Many people believe you have to wait to seek SUD treatment until you notice significant problems in your life. However, like any other disease, the earlier it is caught, the easier it is to treat. The sooner you get treatment, the more issues you may be able to avoid and the fewer people you may end up hurting. You have a better chance of long-term recovery and avoiding serious health problems by intervening early. Even if your substance use has yet to cause serious adverse effects on your life and the lives of those close to you, treatment can still improve the overall quality of your life.

Regardless of what phase you see yourself in terms of your substance use, there are treatment centers designed to help you if you are struggling with tolerance, dependence, or addiction.

While it may be confusing to understand the differences between tolerance, dependence, and addiction, knowing the difference is extremely helpful in picking the right treatment center and your individualized path to recovery. If you or a loved one is negatively impacted by tolerance, dependence, or addiction, there is never a wrong time to seek treatment. At Bella Monte Recovery Center in Desert Hot Springs, California, we are committed to leading you with love to provide optimum addiction treatment no matter the degree to which substance abuse is negatively affecting your life. We provide individualized care plans that focus on what may be causing patterns of substance abuse and address those in order to help you achieve and maintain sobriety long-term. You don’t need to wait to get help. Give yourself the chance you deserve to recover with us here at Bella Monte Recovery Center. Call us today at (800) 974-1938 for more information on our program.