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Tolerance, Dependence and Addiction Explained

The words ‘tolerance,’ ‘dependence’ and ‘addiction’ are often used interchangeably, but they don’t mean the same thing. It’s helpful to understand the true definition of these words, so you can communicate effectively with yourself or a loved one. The words we use can affect how we feel about ourselves and how we access help from medical providers. 

Let’s look further into what tolerance, dependence and addiction mean. 


Addiction is a complex brain disorder that can be treated but not cured. It is characterized by the compulsive seeking and taking of a substance or activity, despite negative consequences. Since addiction is progressive, it typically worsens over time, affecting your health, relationships and quality of life. 

It is possible to become addicted to any substance with addiction potential, whether it’s a prescription medication or non-medical drug. While these substances differ, they all activate the reward center in the brain and produce feelings of pleasure. 

Continuing to abuse substances can lead to a substance use disorder, which can range from mild to severe. Addiction is the most severe form of a substance use disorder, and is characterized by the following: 

  • Increased tolerance
  • Intense focus on the drug
  • Lack of control
  • Personal problems
  • Health issues
  • Withdrawal symptoms 


Physical dependence on a drug is different from addiction, in that it’s not a true brain disease. However, dependence can lead to addiction. 

A physical dependence on a substance begins when your body starts to rely on the drug, not just to feel good, but to feel normal. If you suddenly stop taking the drug, you would likely experience harsh withdrawal symptoms. 

Many drugs cause dependence, including caffeine and tobacco. For example, many people can’t function properly until they have their coffee – they’re dependent on caffeine. If they miss their morning beverage, they may experience withdrawal effects like headache, fatigue, and difficulty concentrating. 

By recognizing a physical dependency, you can talk to your doctor and create a plan to reduce your consumption. 


Building tolerance to a drug is not unusual. Many people take medications and find that the first few times are most effective. The same thing can happen with illicit drugs. They may produce a strong high the first time, but then become less effective. To get the same effects, you need to take more. 

Like dependence, tolerance is not a brain disease. And, it doesn’t mean you will develop an addiction. However, it is a warning sign that you should be careful, as your body is becoming accustomed to having the drug in it. 

Signs that You’ve Crossed Over to Addiction

It’s not always obvious when addiction sets in, because people often struggle with tolerance and dependence first. Therefore, the cycle can be gradual and subtle. But, remember, addiction is a brain disease that occurs due to changes in the brain. It is not a result of bad decisions or lacking willpower.

Here are some signs that you are developing an addiction to drugs or alcohol

  • You take prescription medications, even though you no longer need them
  • You need higher doses to get the same effects
  • You constantly think about taking drugs 
  • You’re losing interest in the things you once enjoyed 
  • You have trouble keeping up with your responsibilities 
  • You experience withdrawal symptoms if you cut back 

Treatment for Drug and Alcohol Addiction 

Awakenings Treatment Center provides drug and alcohol treatment services. With our convenient outpatient programs, you can enter treatment whenever you feel that it’s the right time.

You do not need to hit rock bottom before getting help. Contact our intake specialists today to learn more about our services and how they can help you take control of your life and overcome addiction.