Drug Tolerance Definition Psychology

The phenomenon of tolerance emerges as one of the chief characteristics in the physiological and psychological make-up of every abuser, addict, or chemically dependent person. But what is the drug tolerance definition? Tolerance, simply put, refers to the process by which the body acclimates to the presence of an abused drug. Occurring simultaneously with tolerance is another physical phenomenon, dependence. Dependence emerges alongside tolerance and is the process by which the body requires increasingly larger doses to experience the same results one initially experienced before tolerance set in. In this regard, the two phenomena are not only bound to one another but predictable hallmarks of addictive pathology. They emerge in virtually every scenario where prolonged abuse exists. So why is knowing the drug tolerance definition important?

Common Misconceptions Surrounding the Drug Tolerance Definition Psychology Uses

It should be pointed out that the term tolerance is frequently employed improperly and thus generates as much confusion as it does clarity. Many don’t know the true drug tolerance definition. A common example of the misapplication of the term tolerance would be to refer to a person’s ability to consume large amounts of a drug and while maintaining an appearance of normality or a semblance of functionality. It is ironic that with regards to this example, it is, in some respects, not entirely incorrect. Still, these definitions lack the clinical context that makes the term significant with regards to habituated abuse. Tolerance cuts across drug types without regard for what substance the person is abusing; e.g., tolerance can develop from abusing opiates as well as stimulants like methamphetamine.

Significantly, one of the most striking features of tolerance is its consistent presence in all cycle three variations of abuse. For reasons of treatment protocol, it is worth noting that tolerance also develops regardless of whether or not the drug was obtained legally (through a doctor) or purchased illegally (on the street). In other words, the body does not distinguish between opiates legally prescribed to manage post-surgical pain, any more than it distinguishes the effects of ingesting street narcotics such as heroin.

Further Overview of Condition

Before going any further, it is necessary to enlarge upon the term and define what tolerance means. For clarity’s sake, what we mean when we refer to tolerance is a physical and psychological appetite that develops and eventually emerges as its distinct illness, complete with predictable symptomology and a fairly common set of stages through which the addict passes. Following prolonged use of certain medications, tolerance occurs along the entire spectrum of abuse, because it occurs in the wake of prolonged consumption of some medication, be it sedative, stimulant, and painkiller.

Multiple Routes of Development

As stated previously, tolerance can manifest via several routes, which means it can develop regardless of whether the person is injecting, snorting, or smoking their drugs. Complicating matters is the fact that physiological tolerance, which invariably develops in tandem with psychological dependence, frequently manifests as a secondary mental health disorder. For instance, depression, anxiety, or some other mood disorder are common. When addiction occurs, it is not uncommon to find the presence of other mental health conditions. When a doctor diagnosis a person with one or more co-occurring illnesses, they have a dual diagnosis – more below.

By the time tolerance has developed, the addict has likely experienced the symptoms of other disorders, which essentially means that competing disorders now compromise the person’s psychology. This is clinically significant because it will shape the nature of the treatment administered.

Symptoms of Drug Tolerance

The drug tolerance definition includes various symptoms. Some of the more common features of tolerance include:

  • Irreversibility, meaning that once this psychic damage develops, no known remedy will enable the addict to revert to a time before the establishment of tolerance.
  • Establishment of priorities in which drug-seeking or drug consumption takes precedence over other obligations.
  • The frequency of dosing increases, in addition to the quantities, consumed, and the addict find themselves in a situation where the amount consumed on Monday no longer works by Friday.
  • Physiological tolerance also occurs when an organism builds up a resistance to the effects of a substance after repeated exposure. Ironically this can occur with environmental substances, such as salt or pesticides.

Complicating matters more deeply still is the fact that tolerance does not emerge in a standardized way, meaning that the process is as much dependent on the individual as it is the drugs the individual is taking. For example, a person who needs to take morphine to control post-surgical pain will likely develop tolerance (and dependence) fairly quickly, without any regard for the intentions of the person taking the drug. The same person, if placed in a situation in which they were required to ingest sedatives such as benzodiazepines, would develop tolerance as well, but guide the nuances of how the drug affects the body.

Classification of Tolerance Building Substances

It should be noted that the federal government carefully regulates all prescription medications with regards to prescribing protocols, which must be adhered to. This is especially true when dealing with major painkillers such as Oxycontin or Demerol. The government instituted what is referred to as a scheduling system, which essentially rates a drug for its abuse potential. Schedule IV medications, which include substances such as blood pressure medication or insulin, have virtually no abuse potential.

There exist four different stages of scheduling, with I being the most addictive. Schedule I medications are so abusable that the government considers them valueless and without medical efficacy. Some of the drugs in this category Casa Palmera treats include:

It should be noted again that drugs designed to treat chronic pain are highly addictive, and that there is a very real ratio between the painkiller’s effectiveness controlling pain and the intensity of the euphoria that is generated. Any analgesic or sedative will be proportionately as addictive as it is effective.

Opiates, which are the most common drugs doctors prescribe to treat pain, generate effects similar to those of opium or morphine, and are highly addictive. These drugs include:

  • Hydrocodone (brand name Vicodin).
  • Codeine
  • Morphine (brand name MS Contin)
  • Oxycodone (brand name OxyContin)
  • Meperidine (brand name Demerol)

High-Risk Populations

A fair question to ask is, ‘Who is at risk to develop tolerance?’ Most individuals who take pain medications consistent with what the physician orders do not become addicted to drugs, nor do they exhibit tolerance (it does, however, happen from time to time). This scenario changes when dealing with someone for whom addiction is part of their history. In cases where a narcotic addict must take a painkiller for some procedure or condition are in for a very difficult time. People previously addicted to some medication in the past, or those with a family history of addiction to drugs or alcohol may be at increased risk of becoming addicted to narcotics. There are some means of prevention for both high-risk populations and others, such as:

  • The key to avoiding addiction is to take your medicine exactly as your doctor prescribes, not a moment too soon, and not doubling up on a dose if you missed one at dinner.
  • Share with your doctor any personal and/or family history of substance abuse or addiction. Your doctor needs this information to prescribe the medicines that will work best for you. Fears about addiction should not prevent you from using narcotics to effectively relieve your pain.
  • Remember, it is common for people to develop a tolerance to their pain medication and to need higher doses to achieve the same level of pain relief. Such a situation is normal and is not a sign of addiction. However, you should talk to your doctor if this effect becomes troubling.

Drug Tolerance Definition Psychology

The drug tolerance definition refers to the body’s ability governed by genetic factors and adaptive changes by the body. Adaptive changes occur in response to repeated exposure to a particular drug. The result is usually a loss of sensitivity to the drug. This decreased response is tolerance.

Professionals say the drug tolerance definition is a state of progressively decreased responsiveness to a drug. Consequently, a larger dose of the drug is necessary to achieve the effect originally obtained by a smaller dose.

Drug Dependence

There are two types of drug dependence, physical and psychological. Understanding the drug tolerance definition psychology uses helps us understand these aspects.

  • Physical dependence: Physical dependence is a condition in which the body has adjusted to the presence of a drug. This results in clear symptoms of withdrawal when its use stops. In extreme cases, rapid withdrawal can be life-threatening because the body has become so dependent on the drug as to interfere with normal body processes. An individual physically dependent on a drug requires it to function normally. The state of physical dependence is revealed by withdrawing the drug and noting the occurrence of withdrawal symptoms. Longer-acting drugs tend to produce less intense withdrawal symptoms. This is because the body has more time to adapt to the decreasing presence of the drug.
  • Psychological dependence: Professionals characterize this kind of dependence by the emotional and mental preoccupation with the drug’s effects and by a persistent craving for it. The symptoms displayed are not physical. Craving seems to be the most common withdrawal symptom.

Psychological dependence usually manifests from compulsive drug-taking, but the frequency and pattern of use can differ considerably from one individual to another. Also, there is cross dependence where the ability of one drug to suppress the manifestations of physical dependence produced by another and to maintain the physically dependent state. Cross-dependence may be partial or complete. One amphetamine will show cross dependence with other amphetamines. Most sedatives show cross dependence with each other and with alcohol. Cross-dependence usually occurs among compounds of a given family of drugs. However, it may also occur among drugs of different families that have similar pharmacological effects.

General Information about Addiction

Addiction is a difficult word to define. The World Health Organization (WHO) has provided the following definition: “A behavioral pattern of drug use, characterized by overwhelming involvement with the use of a drug (compulsive use), the securing of the supply, and a high tendency to relapse after withdrawal. Professionals view addiction as an extreme on a continuum of drug use patterns. It refers, in a quantitative rather a qualitative sense, to the degree to which drug use pervades the total life activity of the user, and to the range of circumstances in which drug use controls his/her behavior.”

Addiction refers to dependent patterns of drug self-administration without making a distinction between physical or psychological dependence. People often imply moral weakness by the term addiction. The term drug dependence should replace the term addiction. It is not possible to identify with precision the point where compulsive use turns to addiction. The term addiction isn’t interchangeable with physical dependence.

Scientific studies show that pre-existing mental and behavioral disorders are not a prerequisite for drug use. They also show that the drugs are powerful reinforcers, even in the absence of physical dependence. This discovery radically alters how we treat addiction. Also, it affects many of the assumptions we make about the expression of its pathology.

Call to Learn More about Casa Palmera

At Casa Palmera, we offer multiple types of addiction treatment services for co-occurring disorders and addiction. With a program focused on the underlying issues contributing to tolerance, we provide a platform for sustainable recovery and change. The only failure in life is the failure to act. Now that you know the drug tolerance definition, you can act. If you are interested in learning more about Casa Palmera, contact us today.


This blog is for informational purposes only and should not be a substitute for medical advice. We understand that everyone’s situation is unique, and this content is to provide an overall understanding of substance use disorders. These disorders are very complex, and this post does not take into account the unique circumstances for every individual. For specific questions about your health needs or that of a loved one, seek the help of a healthcare professional.