Substance Addiction Withdrawal: An Overview 

Starting the journey toward recovery from drug or alcohol addiction is a courageous step that comes with various physical and psychological challenges. Withdrawal is one of the first obstacles encountered. Withdrawal is a crucial phase where the body and mind adjust to functioning without substances. Understanding withdrawal, its symptoms, and how to manage them is essential for anyone ready to reclaim their life from addiction.

The Science Behind Addiction and Withdrawal

Addiction changes how the brain operates, particularly affecting the system responsible for feelings of reward and satisfaction. The brain comes to rely heavily on the substances to release dopamine, the neurotransmitter associated with pleasure. When an individual stops using these substances, the brain struggles to regain chemical balance. This imbalance is responsible for the physical and psychological withdrawal symptoms individuals experience. 

Physical symptoms of withdrawal are often a manifestation of the brain’s efforts to recalibrate. In contrast, the psychological symptoms reflect the brain’s difficulty in processing emotions, rewards, and stress without the aid of substances. Despite its discomforts, withdrawal is a necessary phase of resetting the brain’s chemistry. 

Common Symptoms of Drug and Alcohol Withdrawal

Withdrawal has an array of symptoms, both physical and psychological. The severity and combination of these symptoms can vary among individuals, influenced by factors such as the type and duration of substance use. Some people may experience mild discomfort, while others may find the symptoms nearly debilitating. 

General symptoms of withdrawal individuals may experience include a range of physical discomforts, such as muscle aches, pains, headaches, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, or stomach cramps. Pronounced sweating, seizures, uncontrollable shaking or tremors, and an overwhelming sense of fatigue are common. They may develop a fever, chills, or a runny nose. They may have difficulty concentrating, memory problems, and feel disoriented or confused. Intense feelings of anxiety, depression, agitation, or irritability occur. Mood swings are common. 

Additional withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Heart rate and blood pressure could increase or decrease depending on the substance
  • Strong cravings for their substance of choice
  • Vivid dreams or nightmares
  • Disturbances in sleep patterns ranging from insomnia to excessive sleepiness
  • Psychotic symptoms such as hallucinations or delusions

The severity and duration of withdrawal symptoms can vary significantly. For example, withdrawal from opioids, while often very uncomfortable, is generally not life-threatening. In contrast, withdrawal from substances like alcohol and benzodiazepines can be potentially life-threatening, requiring medical supervision due to the risk of seizures, delirium tremens, and other severe symptoms. Medical supervision is recommended for anyone going through withdrawal from substances.

The Timeline of Withdrawal: What to Expect

The progression and duration of withdrawal symptoms can significantly vary depending on several factors, including the type of substance used, the duration and intensity of use, the individual’s health status, and the presence of co-occurring mental health conditions. Generally, symptoms of withdrawal can begin as soon as a few hours and as late as several days following the last substance use. Initial symptoms often peak during the first week but can linger in a less intense form for weeks or months afterward.

For many, the acute phase of withdrawal is just the beginning, with symptoms categorized into two stages: acute and post-acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS). The acute phase has more physical symptoms, which can be intense and uncomfortable. Following this phase, PAWS can occur when psychological and emotional symptoms become more prominent. These can include mood swings, anxiety, depression, sleep disturbances, and cravings. PAWS can last several months to a year, underscoring the necessity for long-term support and strategies to manage these ongoing challenges.

Do You Need Help?

Addiction is a chronic, treatable disease that can affect anyone. If you or a loved one is struggling with an addiction to drugs or alcohol, help is available. At English Mountain Recovery, located in the Smoky Mountains of Eastern Tennessee, our caring professionals will help you achieve your goal of sobriety. Based on a 12-Step curriculum, we offer gender-specific programs that include individual and group therapy, psycho-education, complementary therapies, and relapse prevention planning.