The Difference Between Tolerance and Withdrawal

Published On: March 5, 20244.1 min read818 wordsCategories: Substance Abuse

Tolerance and withdrawal are two concepts that are spoken of frequently in the drug and alcohol recovery worlds; however, they are often interwoven and misunderstood. While they may share some common denominators, two very distinct phenomena should be addressed accordingly. 

What is Tolerance? 

Medical experts define tolerance as a person’s reduced response to a particular substance as a result of repeated use. While the concept of tolerance is often associated with addiction, it can also develop against several different non-addictive substances. For example, someone might have a negative reaction to a particular prescription drug. Still, after some time the body can adapt to the treatment and ceases to react to that particular substance. In some cases, a new medicine may be necessary altogether if the body becomes entirely unaffected by the former prescription. This is often nonconsequential to the person’s overall health, it simply means the prescription choice or amount must be reevaluated. 

Addictive substances, however, can have a deadly association with tolerance buildup. When an addicted person no longer feels the effects of the substance their body craves, they are generally compelled to take higher amounts, or to augment their experience with additional illegal substances. This can lead to overdose, which may have fatal consequences.

How is Tolerance Built Up?

The two factors that impact tolerance build-up are frequency of substance use and quantity of substance used. The more often that a substance is introduced to the body, especially if it is introduced in high quantities, the more the body grows accustomed to its effects. Over time, the same amount of substance fails to make the same impact on the body, and a higher quantity of the drug is needed to feel the desired effects. 

For example, many people report decreased inhibitions, relaxation, and even mild changes in coordination and perception after consuming one to two alcoholic beverages. A chronic alcohol user, however, may have developed such a high alcohol tolerance that their bodies can withstand potentially deadly quantities while maintaining a relatively normal degree of coherence and coordination. 

What is Withdrawal? 

Removing addictive substances from the system oftentimes leads to adverse side effects and symptoms as the body adjusts to the changes taking place. This experience immediately following the cessation or weaning of substances, characterized by challenging physical and psychological reactions, is referred to as withdrawal. 

Withdrawal definition is frequently confused with detox; however withdrawal is something that takes place during the detoxification process. Detox refers to the body’s process of expelling toxic substances from the body; specifically drugs and alcohol in the case of addiction recovery. In addition, the body becomes dependent on the substances used, so it generally reacts poorly when they are removed. 

Detoxification can be self-guided, but is oftentimes best undertaken with the accompaniment of professionals to navigate the difficult ebbs and flows of withdrawal. Every person is different, but withdrawal symptoms can be powerful and may jeopardize the person’s overall health and well-being, negatively impacting the success of recovery.

Withdrawal symptoms can range from mild to severe, and in extreme cases may be life-threatening. These side effects include but are not limited to: 

  • Headaches
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Fatigue 
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Tremors
  • Seizures 
  • Hallucinations 

If you or someone you know are experiencing withdrawal symptoms, reach out to a medical or mental health professional to see what support options could be right for you.

Comparison: Tolerance vs. Withdrawal

Tolerance and withdrawal are terms that are often mistakenly interchanged in the drug recovery and addiction space. While they both refer to changes in the body that take place about substance use, they exist on opposite ends of the spectrum. 

Tolerance refers to the “dulling” of the body’s response to a particular substance as a result of repeated use. It is what happens when drugs are added to the body. Withdrawal, on the other hand, refers to the series of negative side effects that result from the removal of a particular substance from the body. Withdrawal happens when drugs are removed from the body. 

Withdrawal and tolerance can both be experienced in very powerful ways that can motivate behavior change, but in different ways. Tolerance often motivates people to increase substance intake to achieve the desired effects, however withdrawal simply motivates continued use without change in substance quantity. 

One additional difference between tolerance and withdrawal is the timeframe in which they are observed. Tolerance generally takes place over an extended period as the body builds immunity to the substance. Conversely, withdrawal symptoms can set in immediately after substance use is interrupted. 

Find Help in Addiction Recovery Today

The road to healing can be long, but you don’t have to walk it alone. If you or a loved one are struggling with drug or alcohol addiction, Freedom Detox is here to support you. Contact us online today, or call 800-475-2312 to reclaim your life, one step at a time.

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