Drug and Alcohol Withdrawal is a process that occurs when an addict suddenly stops using. Their body and mind have become so dependent on their addiction that the moment they are without, normal functioning is challenged. There are several drug and Alcohol withdrawal symptoms altogether, but each substance has its own unique family of symptoms and a timeline as to how they play out. depending on the type of addiction along with how long the addiction has been evident.
The various processes of drug and Alcohol withdrawals generally share some common patterns and characteristics. First, and most importantly, withdrawing involves a change in mental or emotional state. Whether due to biochemical factors or psychological factors, addiction completely alters the normal mental or emotional state of the addict. During the withdrawal process, that state is reverting, at least partially, to the pre-addiction state.
Another common trend in any withdrawal processes is that they are not easy. An addict, throughout the life of their addiction, has adapted to the mental state of mind induced by their addiction which can lead to emotional trauma. When withdrawal symptoms are a result of an intentional attempt to quit an addiction, there is a strong chance of relapse which occurs when the addict fails to remain abstinent. In fact, the vast majority of addicts who attempt to quit their addiction relapse at least once when experiencing withdrawal symptoms.
When an addict is unable to feed their addiction, their withdrawal symptoms are involuntary. Involuntary withdrawals tend to be prolonged or exacerbated as the addict is in the process of chasing the addictive substance trying and doing everything they can to get what they now need.
What Are Some Types of Withdrawals?
The varying symptoms of withdrawals are initially categorized by the intent and whether it is a voluntary or involuntary process. A voluntary process of withdrawal is when the addict is intentionally attempting to quit their addiction whereas an involuntary process of withdrawal is when the addict no longer has access to the drug or alcoholic drink.
Withdrawal symptoms are then categorized based on the source of the addiction. With each substance, there are unique withdrawal symptoms and though they differ, the overall process holds the common phases. Heroin withdrawal symptoms are not the same as Marijuana withdrawal symptoms. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms do not resemble withdrawal symptoms from other substances either.
When expecting to experience the inevitable symptoms of withdrawals, many addicts will go into a comprehensive detox program. A detox facility is equipped to supervise and manage withdrawal symptoms with medications that help alleviate withdrawal symptoms. important if you or a loved one is looking to break an addictive habit or is experiencing any type of involuntary withdrawal.
Four Categories of Withdrawals
Spontaneous Withdrawal – Colloquially referred to as “going cold turkey,” spontaneous withdrawal occurs when the addict stops using the addictive substance abruptly and completely. This type of withdrawal is caused by an intentional decision to quit or may be involuntary if the addict fails to get access to the addictive substance.
When undergoing spontaneous withdrawals, the urge to relapse is quite strong, as addiction is both physical and mental. If relapse is avoided (voluntarily or not) though the symptoms are strong, typically they are usually relatively brief.
Precipitated Withdrawal – Precipitated withdrawal involves using medication to ease withdrawal symptoms. There are some medications used to ease withdrawal symptoms, like Suboxone. Suboxone eases withdrawal symptoms without providing any high. There are similar medications that help with Alcohol withdrawals as well. The onset of symptoms pass much faster and are easier to cope with, given the supplemental medication and supervision.
Because this type of withdrawal doesn’t involve the natural decline towards withdrawal, the symptoms can be quite dangerous. On the positive side, this type of withdrawal thoroughly cleanses the body of the addictive substance which usually results in a shorter duration of withdrawal symptoms.
Protracted Withdrawal – As the name suggests this type of withdrawal process takes place over a long period of time. If the average time for the complete cessation of withdrawal symptoms for a particular drug takes a few weeks, a protracted withdrawal may last months or years. The most common reason it takes so long is that the addict is typically weaning themself off the drug with increasingly smaller doses while utilizing another medication.
A protracted withdrawal combined with a precipitated withdrawal usually involves using one drug that cleanses the addictive substance and another that replaces it. An involuntary protracted withdrawal usually results in symptoms that fluctuate between mild and intense.
Medically Supervised Withdrawal – As the name suggests, this type of withdrawal process involves withdrawing under the supervision of a medical professional at a drug and alcohol detox facility.
A medically supervised withdrawal yields the highest success rate for those seeking to end an addiction and the least risk for medical complications due to withdrawal. Withdrawal symptoms during a medically supervised withdrawal are usually controlled to minimize suffering.
More than 10 percent of U.S. children live with a parent with alcohol problems
Emotional Withdrawal Symptoms
Many drugs, particularly hallucinogenic drugs, affect emotional state. When a person has been abusing hallucinogenic drugs long enough, your brain chemistry alters such that you are reliant on that altered emotional state for stability. During withdrawal, your mental and emotional state become volatile, resulting in emotional withdrawal symptoms.
The most common emotional withdrawal symptom is some form of depression. This will usually express itself in a deep listlessness or maybe even suicidal tendencies. In some cases, when your emotional stability is particularly chaotic, it may result in manic-depressive tendencies, which means you will shift back and forth between being hyperactive and depressed.
An almost equally common emotional withdrawal symptom is aggression, often paired with paranoia. This aggression may reveal itself in threatening words or behavior, in actual physical assaults, or in extreme risk taking that is likely to result in self-harm. Individuals who are suffering from aggression as a withdrawal symptom should stay as far as possible away from heavy machinery (including passenger vehicles).
Rapid mood changes are an emotional withdrawal symptom that is less common, but still common enough that you should be aware of it. This is similar to manic-depressive behavior, but with changes that occur more quickly and a wider spectrum of emotions. You can easily shift between happiness, sadness, fear, anger, grumpiness, numbness, and a wide range of other emotions within just a few minutes or even seconds. These rapid shifts are highly unpredictable and frustrate you as much as people that you are interacting with.
While the above withdrawal symptoms are some of the most common associated with emotional states, it is hardly an exhaustive list. Pretty much any emotion that you can feel can be forced upon you as a result of a withdrawal symptom, depending on the drug. Similarly, withdrawal from some drugs can cause complete emotional numbness.
Physical Withdrawal Symptoms
The physical withdrawal symptoms range from rather tame to potentially deadly. The latter will be examined thoroughly in the next section. However, even if physical symptoms aren’t deadly, they can be extremely taxing, especially if not controlled.
Probably the most common physical withdrawal symptoms for all substances are some combination of nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. As the drug leaves your system, your body chemistry changes. And when your body chemistry is outside the expected norm, your body assumes it has been poisoned. It reacts to poisoning by expelling the contents of your stomach as quickly as possible.
Another relatively common physical symptom is shortness of breath. Depending on the drug and your health this may also be paired with heart palpitations. While neither is particularly dangerous, you should avoid strenuous activities if experiencing either of these symptoms during withdrawal.
Your heart isn’t the only muscle that is likely to be affected by withdrawals. Many people experience tightness or tremors in various muscles throughout their body. Tremors especially are very common with alcohol withdrawals. This is another symptom that is generally harmless but can result in danger in the wrong circumstances. If you are experiencing muscle tremors, stairs present a much greater danger than usual, as do motor vehicles.
Finally, excessive sweating is another common physical withdrawal symptom. Individuals suffering this symptom will generally sweat even when they haven’t recently engaged in any strenuous physical exertion. However, if they have engaged in some strenuous activity, they tend to sweat significantly more than usual. The only real threat from this symptom is the possibility of dehydration if you don’t drink enough liquids.
While other physical withdrawal symptoms exist, most are either incredibly rare or are so dangerous that they belong in the next category.
Dangerous Withdrawal Symptoms
Some symptoms that come from drug and Alcohol withdrawals have the potential to lead to lifelong health problems, lifelong social problems, and even death.
Probably the most well know dangerous withdrawal symptom is one that is commonly depicted in movies and television: seizures. Seizures are particularly dangerous for drug addicts because most addicts aren’t familiar with seizures. As a result, they have a greater risk of lasting injuries when a seizure occurs.
Strokes and heart attacks are also a possible threat during a withdrawal process. Because your body chemistry is abnormal during withdrawal, even a minor stroke or heart attack is more threatening, simply because your body will have more difficulty recovering. If you should experience a major heart attack or stroke, your odds of surviving are much lower than usual unless you are already in a medical facility or under the care of a physician.
As previously mentioned, not all dangerous withdrawal symptoms are physical. Some drugs will cause you to experience hallucinations during withdrawal. This is common with a heavy Heroin Addict going through the withdrawal process. Even with no other symptoms, hallucinations are dangerous because they can disguise dangerous situations or cause you to get into an accident (especially if you are driving). When hallucinations are present with other symptoms like depression or aggression, you are at serious risk of both self-harm and harming others, the latter of which can result in legal difficulties which may have permanent negative social effects on your life.
Dangerous withdrawal symptoms are less common than the other types of withdrawal symptoms, but they also have much more lasting effects. Even if you don’t die or suffer irreversible health problems, some of these withdrawal symptoms can cost you your job, your relationships, or even result in prison. If you are experiencing voluntary withdrawal, 24-hour medical supervision is the best way to protect yourself from these symptoms. If your withdrawal is involuntary, it is a good idea to reach out to someone who can stay near you through the worst of it and call for emergency assistance if necessary.
An estimated 88,000 people die from Alcohol-related causes annually, making Alcohol the fourth leading preventable cause of death in the United States.
For most drugs, withdrawal occurs in two stages. During the first stage, the acute stage, you primarily suffer from physical withdrawal symptoms. You may also suffer from mental or emotional symptoms, but if you do, they tend to be quite extreme. This is the stage where you are cleansing your body of the drug.
The post-acute stage occurs after your body has cleansed the drug, but still, needs to revert fully to your original brain chemistry. A long-term addiction to Opioids has the tendency to lead to symptoms associated with post-acute withdrawal.
For example, during this stage, you are less likely to experience full depression. More likely you would experience some tiredness and decreased enthusiasm. Similarly, rather than being highly aggressive, you are more likely to be simply irritable. And if you experience mood swings, they will generally be less extreme than during the acute phase.
Sleep disruption and uneven energy levels are also a common symptom during the post-acute phase of withdrawal. It is a little ironic, but it is common for individuals in this stage to both be tired and have trouble sleeping through the night. This exacerbates the difficulty with maintaining energy levels and interferes with concentration. Overall, activities that require any form of concerted effort are simply much more difficult to perform.
Post-acute withdrawal is particularly frustrating because it is episodic. One day you may feel perfectly fine and then the next day you are juggling a variety of mental and emotional symptoms. These episodes rarely last for more than two days, but it is almost impossible to predict when they will occur or go away. Even worse, this will often continue for as long as two years before your brain chemistry finally fully stabilizes.
Use of Medications to Manage Withdrawals
Minimizing withdrawal symptoms is one of the best ways to prevent long term problems resulting from withdrawal. Using medications to manage withdrawals, preferably under the supervision of a physician, is one of the most effective ways to create a safe withdrawal process.
The simplest way to manage withdrawals with medication is to manage the symptoms. For example, muscle relaxers can easily prevent muscle tightness, heart palpitations, tremors, and seizures. Similarly, anti-nausea medicine is a simple way to prevent vomiting.
The other main way to manage withdrawal symptoms with medications is by taking drugs that are designed to help you wean your way off the drug you are addicted to. These drugs reproduce some of the biochemical processes of the original drug, but without the addictive quality of the drug (or at least with less addictive qualities). The result is that you can shake your addiction by taking decreasing quantities at increasing time intervals.