Sometimes, fear can serve a useful role in the fight against addiction. For example, in a study in the American Journal of Psychiatry, researchers found that people who were afraid of the drug withdrawal process were more likely to provide drug-free urine tests, when compared to people who didn’t have intense fear of withdrawal.
Here, withdrawal fear kept people compliant with their treatment programs, as they knew that relapsing would mean going through withdrawal all over again.
This same fear could be counterproductive, however, as it might keep people from even enrolling in treatment in the first place.
People with addictions might use all sorts of excuses when they discuss treatment, but it’s common for them to state that withdrawal will be:
These fear-based excuses can keep people from getting the help they’ll need in order to beat their addictions, but thankfully, many of these concerns will never come to pass. Family members who understand the timeline of withdrawal and the help a program can provide, might be able to respond to these excuses with both precision and understanding, ensuring that people get the help they so desperately need.
The withdrawal process is a bit like digestion: It’s natural, normal and quite healthy. In the early stages of withdrawal, the body processes all of the remaining drugs that linger in the body’s fat and blood cells. Once those substances are gone, the body then attempts to function in the absence of any substance. Any person who has a drink of alcohol goes through a form of withdrawal in the hours that follow. Often, people don’t even notice that this process is happening.
People who have addictions, on the other hand, have a larger hurdle to jump over before they reach true sobriety. As the addiction has progressed, they’ve kept their bodies drugged around the clock, and the body’s cells have responded in kind. They’ve amended their procedures in response to those drugs, and now, they no longer function efficiently unless drugs are present. When the person tries to get sober, the clean state no longer feels normal and natural. Instead, it feels foreign and unusual, and the body rebels with all sorts of symptoms of distress.
People who go through withdrawal may feel as though they’re dying or that they’re doing damage that will haunt them forever. In reality, it might be just the first part of a long journey that leads to healing. It’s hard to get through, but it can happen. Every addicted person who is now clean has been through the process, and while the symptoms they faced might be deeply dependent on the drugs they once took, the wellness they feel now likely began during withdrawal.
Some drugs of abuse cause very few symptoms during the first few days of withdrawal. There are some, however, that do cause intense physical discomfort when withdrawal begins. Opioid drugs like Vicodin and OxyContin, along with hard opiates like heroin, can cause symptoms that are commonly associated with the flu, including:
- Muscle cramps
Alcohol’s early withdrawal symptoms tend to involve feelings of nervousness or anxiety, along with vivid dreams and a fast heart rate. Marijuana withdrawal can also cause these symptoms, along with aggression and anger.
While few people would claim that they feel comfortable in these moments, a study in the journal Addiction suggests that most people who withdraw experience symptoms that are merely moderate in severity, not overwhelming. Here, among people who were addicted to marijuana, 57 percent said that they had at least six symptoms that were moderate, while only 46 percent had four symptoms they thought were severe. This seems to suggest that moderate symptoms are much more common than severe pain.
Along with physical signs of discomfort, people can experience an intense craving for the substances they once took. These aren’t mild wishes that might come and go, but they are deep-set feelings of need that can be difficult or impossible to ignore. People just want these substances, and they might be willing to do almost anything to get what they want. For some, this is the hardest symptom of the early stage of withdrawal.
Some addictive drugs tend to cause intense damage that can lead to very significant feelings of physical pain as the withdrawal process moves forward. Typically, these substances are in the sedative family. Taking these drugs for long periods of time tends to put a damper on all electrical activity the brain should find both normal and natural. Once the brain tries to return to its normal level of functioning, seizures can take place. This is relatively rare, as a study in the journal Archives of Neurology found that none of the 301 people addicted to the sedative alcohol had a seizure during withdrawal, even though they had a high incidence of seizures in the past. Since seizures can be life-threatening, doctors still take the issue seriously, even though the risk of problems is somewhat low.
Cravings for drugs also tend to grow more intense as the withdrawal process moves forward, with some people becoming desperate for some kind of drug solution that could ease their pain. People might also be hit with memories they’d long suppressed and emotions they’d not dealt with for years, and these issues can be hard to handle. As withdrawal progresses, some people find that their emotions also become more intense.
Since the withdrawal process can be so uncomfortable, and since so many people are afraid to even begin, experts often design intensive programs that can soothe distress and keep people calm as their bodies heal. Medications might play a role in that process. People who are addicted to opiates or opioids might benefit from replacement medications that can soothe physical distress and soothe cravings. Those addicted to marijuana or a stimulant drug might benefit from medications that can ease anxiety and allow sleep to come.
Medications may also help to prevent seizures in people addicted to alcohol or sedatives like benzodiazepines. Programs might use a customized approach here, checking clients frequently and looking for symptoms of withdrawal. If these troublesome signs appear, experts can provide medications that can stop the problem in its tracks, ensuring that signals don’t grow more intense with time.
Therapy can also help people to realize that the symptoms they’re facing are transient and part of the healing process. Rather than thinking that they’re dying, or that the symptoms they’re facing will result in the end of their lives, they’ll understand that the discomfort they face is just part of the process their bodies must go through in order to grow stronger in a healthy, safe and sober manner. It might be the kind of information that can keep people enrolled, rather than empowering them to drop out.
Settings and Treatment Time
The amount of time a person spends in withdrawal from start to finish can vary depending on:
- The drug in question
- Length of the addiction
- Physical health
- Prior attempts at sobriety
Some people breeze through the process in a few days, while others need a longer period of time in order to heal. In a study in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, for example, researchers found that withdrawing from marijuana took anywhere from four to 14 days. It’s just difficult to tell how long the journey might last. Therapists don’t kick their clients out before the program is complete, however, so clients can go through the process at a pace that seems right to them.
It is safe to say, however, that few people go through the process alone. Enrolling in a formal treatment program that accepts clients on a residential basis is the right path for some people, as this setting allows them to escape from the influences that might keep them using and abusing drugs. They have a chance to really get away, and get help, and they can heal as a result. But those who balk at the idea of going through a formal program away from home still can get better. They might enroll in outpatient programs, however, taking medications at home under the guidance of a medical practitioner. Family members can supervise, ensuring that all goes well, but the person can be at home instead of living in an institution as the process moves ahead. People who take this route will need to ensure that they don’t have access to drugs and alcohol in the home, however, as the cravings might be intense and easy access might make resistance difficult or even futile.
When the detox program is complete, the person will need to enroll in a formal treatment program for addiction. While detox can help the person to get sober, the therapies provided may not help someone to stay sober as the months and years pass and the need for drugs remains present. A formal program for addiction can provide people with these skills, so they can preserve their sobriety and never need another detox program in the future. As part of the services provided in detox, therapists might reiterate the value of formal treatment, and in some cases, therapists might even transport clients to the treatment facility, ensuring that they don’t relapse before enrolling in formal therapy.
People who want to get sober should begin by visiting a medical practitioner for a full physical. Knowing about any underlying medical conditions that might be in play can help the medical team to plan. Once that step has been completed, it’s time to choose a setting for healing and begin the process in earnest. Some people check into local hospitals at this point, due to their medical conditions, while others work with their doctors at home and take medications on a customized schedule. Still others find a residential program that can help, and they follow the preparation steps to the letter, ensuring that they arrive prepared for what comes next.
Healing from an addiction can be tricky, and if you’re feeling overwhelmed about all of the options available and all of the choices you must make, please know that you’re not alone. In fact, we’d like to help you. At Black Bear Lodge, we provide intensive treatments that can help people to break their addiction to drugs and alcohol, and we can also assist people who have mental illnesses as well as addictions. We’re happy to talk with you about your treatment options, and we might even provide you with the name of an interventionist you can use in order to bring up the subject of healing with the person in need. Please call, and we’ll get started.