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Substance abuse affects many Americans, to the degree drug addiction is a national epidemic. Drug and alcohol dependency change the life of not only the addict but can also affect family and friends. Some contend it is a matter of mere willpower, that the addict should “just stop using drugs and drinking alcohol.” For the majority of the population without an addiction problem, this simplistic statement may seem like a solution. Unfortunately, the withdrawal syndrome accompanying substance use disorder reveals not a lack of will, but a physical disease with no easy cure.

What is Withdrawal Syndrome?

When a person dependent on drugs or alcohol suddenly stops using the substance, he/she may go through a withdrawal period. Withdrawal syndrome usually occurs with cluster-like symptoms in the first two weeks after stopping or significantly decreasing use of a prescription drug or illicit addictive drugs. Drug withdrawal can happen whether or not a person is addicted to the substance. Not all drugs and substances will cause the same withdrawal symptoms or even have the same timeline for the onset of withdrawal. This is all dependent on how the substance interacts with the brain and bodily functions. Every drug has a different half-life, meaning how long it stays active in the body.

Someone who has been under the influence of depressant-type drugs like opiates, alcohol or sedatives will usually recover from the withdrawal symptoms during their detox process. However, someone who has been using stimulants like methamphetamine or cocaine may suffer from depression once they have quit, and then the withdrawal process will begin.
Withdrawal from drugs or alcohol can be a tough experience, and some withdrawal syndromes can even be dangerous. Because of the risks of the withdrawal effects, it is recommended to seek supervised medical attention and to medically detox in the care of an inpatient rehab facility.

Causes of Withdrawal

Withdrawal is a sequence of cognitive, physical, and psychological symptoms are caused when drugs or alcohol are no longer in a person’s blood and tissues. Often withdrawal is followed by the development of a dependency and tolerance to drugs or alcohol.


When someone uses a drug for an extended length of time, the body builds up resistance or a tolerance, causing the person to need more of the drug to reach the same mental or physical effect. High level drug tolerance is not always an indication that someone has an addiction. In fact, a higher tolerance may develop before one experiences the withdrawal symptoms which signal actual dependency.


Prolonged use or abuse of any drug or alcohol can affect a person’s physical appearance and the regulation of internal systems. Hormones and neurotransmitters are often altered based on the type of drug present in someone’s system. Those who have a substance abuse disorder have difficulty limiting their drug use and can experience many side effects if they do.
When a person stops or lowers his/her usage, drug levels in the bloodstream begin to drop, and detoxification begins, starting in the liver. Symptoms of withdrawal indicate the user has developed a dependency on a drug. As the drug level continues to decrease, the dependent body becomes confused and out of balance and adverse side effects can occur.

Drug Withdrawal Symptoms

During drug withdrawal, one may experience physical and psychological symptoms that can change the way one acts, thinks or feels. Heroin, cocaine, and alcohol cause stronger physical dependency while other drugs such as speed or hallucinogens can cause more psychological changes. No matter what the drug, withdrawal will ultimately affect your body and mind.

The withdrawal process begins when your body feels as if it is being deprived of the drug it is dependent on. The type of withdrawal, severity, and length can all depend on the drug and person. Benzodiazepines and alcohol withdrawal symptoms can be deadly if not monitored by a detox specialist. Completing the withdrawal process supervised by a professional and in a safe setting may be easier to manage than dealing with the symptoms alone. Some of the physical and psychological symptoms of withdrawal include:

Physical Symptoms

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol cravings
  • Being irritable
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Seizures
  • Flu-like symptoms:
    • chills
    • sweating
    • fever
    • heart shudders
    • nausea
    • vomiting
    • diarrhea
    • stomach and muscle cramps
    • headaches
  • Trouble breathing
  • Change in heart rate, lowered heart rate, increased heart rate
  • Feeling like your chest is tightening or there is pressure on your chest

Psychological Symptoms

  • Intense drug cravings
  • Mood swings
  • Depression
  • Anxiety, nervousness, or panic attacks
  • Restlessness
  • Detaching yourself from others
  • Trouble concentrating, memory issues or trouble solving problems

Withdrawal Treatment

Attempting go through withdrawal “cold turkey” can lead to mood swings, medical issues and increase the risk of relapse and overdose. Choosing withdrawal management with a medical professional in a safe and productive environment helps the withdrawal process pass more smoothly. Here are some benefits of this supervised medical approach to detoxification:

Withdrawal Management Programs

  • Detox programs have medical professionals who will observe and control the withdrawal symptoms
  • Inpatient programs offer patients 24-hour supervision as well as a controlled program for recovery after detox. These programs include medication, therapeutic activities, and therapy
  • Outpatient programs are available for patients who do not require 24 hours a day supervision
  • Partial hospitalization programs are an option for patients who want to spend most of their day in a treatment facility while continuing with their daily lives at home or work when not in treatment


The process of a withdrawal management program involves managing medications which reduce harsh withdrawal effects, and in some situations eliminate them completely. Benzodiazepines and opioid medication replacements are often given on a decreasing schedule to where the patient receives lower doses at specific times, so they can adjust slowly to weaning the body off the drug. Common withdrawal medications include:

  • Benzodiazepines used for alcohol and other benzodiazepines during withdrawal.
  • Suboxone and methadone used for withdrawal from opiates (heroin, morphine, Vicodin, and OxyContin)
  • Naltrexone, usually given to help reduce drug cravings

Psychological and physical symptoms of withdrawal are challenging, and can be quite hard to manage for someone who is dependent on drugs. Detox is an essential step towards recovery. As addiction doesn’t just happen overnight, neither does the recovery process. The quality and knowledge of an inpatient treatment program can make a significant impact on someone’s success in recovery. If you are ready to start a new and healthy life free from drugs, and accept the services of addiction professionals, then you are already one step closer to clean and sober living. Serenity Acres can help answer your questions about drug abuse and addiction.