The Stages of Withdrawal From Drugs and Alcohol

Just as addiction to drugs and alcohol itself has consequences and repercussions, so too does recovery, or at least the start of it.

Arguably the hardest hurdle for any addict to clear is the detox. Your body has grown so utterly accustomed to substances flowing through your system that the moment you cut the supply it throws everything into chaos.

That chaos has a name: withdrawal.

The cost of entry to the promised land of recovery is having to deal with withdrawal and its effects. To be blunt about it because there’s really no sense in beating around the bush, it isn’t pleasant.

Think of the word “detox” – detoxification – the very idea of it is that your body is filled with toxins that need to be gotten rid of and it doesn’t happen with the snap of a finger.

It’s a process and there are stages of withdrawal.

What Is Withdrawal From Drugs and Alcohol?

Withdrawal is all the things you experience, both mentally and physically, when you stop using drugs and/or alcohol or even when you just reduce the amount you’re taking.

After sustained and regular use of substances, your body grows accustomed to them being there and pumping through your brain. It becomes your “normal” and in a very real sense you’re dependent on the drugs or drinks to keep you feeling that version of normal.

It’s instructive to look at the definition of addiction here, “addiction is defined as a chronic, relapsing disorder characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use despite adverse consequences. It is considered a brain disorder because it involves functional changes to brain circuits involved in reward, stress, and self-control. Those changes may last a long time after a person has stopped taking drugs”.

You’ve literally become wired to use and withdrawal is the effect of breaking that circuit by cutting off the supply of reward-inducing substances.

Each person has their own experience with withdrawal and some substances have different manifestations but in general, the common symptoms are:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Muscle and bone pain and aches
  • Fatigue
  • Sweating
  • Congestions
  • Mood swings
  • Irritability
  • Paranoia
  • Confusion
  • High temperature and/or chills
  • Changes in appetite
  • Intense cravings for the substance
  • Panic attacks
  • Insomnia and restlessness
  • Tremors and shaking
  • Headaches
  • Heart palpitations
  • Diarrhea 
  • Anxiety

As you can see, it’s not the most enjoyable experience.

Additionally, withdrawal can actually be deadly, the most notable example being alcohol.

Serious alcohol abuse over a long period can lead to symptoms of severe alcohol withdrawal that include “profound confusion, autonomic hyperactivity, and cardiovascular collapse”. This is known as delirium tremens (DTs) and “has an anticipated mortality of up to 37% without appropriate treatment. It is crucial to identify early signs of withdrawal because it can become fatal”.

Withdrawal from benzos and opioids comes with dangers as well which is why it’s important to detox under the supervision of medical experts and guidance of addiction specialists to make sure you stay safe and as comfortable as possible given the circumstances.

Are There Stages of Withdrawal? 

Withdrawal does occur in stages and notably, the timelines for various substances are different. Nonetheless, the phases themselves mainly break down as follows:

Onset of Withdrawal

This can be anywhere from a few hours with alcohol to a couple of days for long-acting opioids.

Peak of Symptoms

Alcohol withdrawal symptoms will typically peak the quickest, generally with 1 to 2 days. On the flipside, symptoms from benzo withdrawal may peak in 2 weeks.

Tapering of Symptoms

After the peak, symptoms slowly dissipate over the course of the following days or weeks.

Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome

The above stages of withdrawal are collectively known as “acute withdrawal” and are short-term. Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome (PAWS) can happen weeks into recovery or even months later with symptoms lingering for over a year potentially. It involves mainly the mental and emotional symptoms of withdrawal, not the physical ones.

Withdrawal isn’t necessarily easy but it is doable with support and assistance from trained professionals and getting past it is a huge step on the journey of recovery. If you’re worried about withdrawal or have questions about it, reach out to us at Valley Recovery Center and we’ll be happy to walk you through it.


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