Understanding the Withdrawal Symptoms of Addictive Substances


How Long Do Withdrawal Symptoms Last?

Withdrawal SymptomsEach time you use alcohol and other drugs, they change the way your body and brain operate. Using once or twice result in several short-term effects while using high doses continuously often ends with severe, lasting effects that impact your mental and physical health.

You may wish to avoid the negative effects of substance abuse by ending all drug consumption, but even stopping use is associated with risk. When a habitual user suddenly stops or slows their use, they could face withdrawal symptoms.

What Is Withdrawal?

To fully understand withdrawal, you must understand the overlap and differences between addiction, tolerance, and dependence. You might hear these terms used interchangeably, but their meanings are quite distinct.

Tolerance is a biological process resulting in a person needing to consume higher doses or more frequent doses of a drug to produce the same effect. Tolerance is expected with continued use and seen with substances like alcohol, pain medications, and drugs like heroin.

Physical dependence is a consequence of your body and brain adapting to the substance during tolerance. As your body adapts, it becomes accustomed to the substance being present and requires the drug to feel well and function normally.

Addiction is something else completely. While tolerance and dependence are physiological processes, addiction is psychologically based.

Addiction involves a series of thinking, feeling, and behavior changes, which place the person’s focus on getting and using their drug of choice. Addiction and dependence can occur simultaneously or separately.

You could be dependent on a prescribed medication without being addicted to it. You could also be addicted to a substance without being physically dependent on it.

The Basis of Withdrawal

So, where does withdrawal come in? Withdrawal is closely related to tolerance and dependence while being separate from addiction.

Independence, the brain modifies its normal functioning to balance the effects of the substance. The problem comes when the substance is no longer available at the needed levels, and the balance is upset.

Chemical messengers called neurotransmitters are responsible for maintaining this balance. Once a dependent person stops using, there will be an abundance of some neurotransmitters and not enough of the others. This neurotransmitter imbalance results in the emergence of withdrawal symptoms.

Withdrawal symptoms will vary based on the substance or substances you are withdrawing from, but generally, withdrawal symptoms are the opposite of intoxication symptoms. If a drug makes you feel calm and relaxed, the withdrawal will trigger feelings of anxiety and agitation.

Withdrawal Factors

A challenging aspect of substance withdrawal is predicting who will have symptoms, how bad the symptoms will be, and how long they will last for. Individual differences drive these effects, but some factors provide needed clues to withdrawal including:

  • Duration of use
  • Frequency and amount used
  • The substance or combination of substances used
  • Previous attempts to withdrawal
  • Co-occurring mental or physical health complaints

Based on these factors, someone who has used large amounts of alcohol daily for years has severe depression, and poor experiences with ending use in the past will most likely experience future withdrawal symptoms. On the other hand, someone who has only used a prescription pain medication a few times as prescribed probably will not experience withdrawal.

Substance Withdrawal Symptoms and Timelines

Many substances create a state of physical dependence, which means they produce withdrawal symptoms when stopped. Here are the most commonly abused substances and their withdrawal symptoms:

Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms

After you stopped or reduce heavy and prolonged alcohol use, you could experience:

  • Sweating and quickened pulse rate
  • Shaky hands
  • Inability to sleep
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Restlessness or sudden, jerky movements
  • High anxiety
  • Hallucinations – seeing, hearing, or feeling things that are not really there
  • Seizures

The risk of alcohol withdrawal increases for people over 30. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms develop soon after the last drink with a total course of withdrawal lasting for four to five days.

About ten percent of people withdrawal from alcohol will experience seizures or extreme confusion during the process.

Cannabis Withdrawal

You might think that marijuana is a perfectly safe substance with no risk of addiction, tolerance or physical dependence. Unfortunately, this view is incorrect, as the substance results in withdrawal symptoms in at least 50 percent of users.

Cannabis/marijuana withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Irritability
  • Anger and aggression
  • Nervousness, worry, and anxiety
  • Problems sleeping
  • Decreased appetite with weight loss
  • Restlessness
  • Depressed mood
  • Physical discomfort like:
    • Stomach pain
    • Shakiness
    • Sweating
    • Fever/ chills
    • Headaches

Marijuana withdrawal symptoms are not directly life-threatening, but they can be very uncomfortable, especially from a mental health perspective. Depression and anger may result in aggression towards others or self-injury without treatment.

These withdrawal symptoms begin within three days of last use, peak after one week, and last for a total of two weeks. Sleep problems may be ongoing with reduced quality and quantity of sleep lasting for a month or more. Symptoms will be more intense and persistent in adults rather than children and adolescents.

Next page: Learn more about sedative, stimulant, and opioid withdrawal symptoms. 

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