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Why Does Withdrawal Hurt So Badly?

Recognizing a problem and taking action to quit an addiction is admirable but can also be scary. Withdrawal symptoms are real and not always mild. Withdrawal from an addictive substance is a reaction by the body to continue dependence on the substance. One common example of withdrawal is a hangover, or the symptoms displayed after someone drinks a copious amount of alcohol. 

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Association (SAMHSA), public intoxication was treated as a criminal offense until the 1970s. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, when doctors and clinicians formally recognized alcoholism and addiction as a disease, the societal consequences of public intoxication changed. Thankfully, this also meant that access to treatment changed, leaning toward detoxification of addictive substances and mental health support. People were given greater ability to go through withdrawal in a safe environment with clinical staff to nurse them through detoxification.

Detoxification and Withdrawal

SAMHSA defines detoxification of an addictive substance as a process in which family or doctors can monitor the absence of a substance in the patient’s bloodstream. This process can be done by acute detoxification (quitting cold turkey) or by tapered detoxification. 

There are three main steps involved in clinical detoxification:

  1. Evaluation includes testing the patient’s blood for levels of addictive substances in the bloodstream and screening for mental health conditions or concerns.  
  2. Stabilization is the hard part where the patient goes through withdrawal with the assistance of clinical staff, including constant maintenance and mental health support. 
  3. Fostering a patient’s entry into treatment is the process of preparing a patient for substance abuse treatment. A patient can be treated at a hospital, rehabilitation facility, or even through outpatient care. At this step, the patient agrees to stick to their personalized plan for remaining abstinent from addictive substances and learns how to make healthier choices moving forward.

The Cycle of Addiction

To fully understand withdrawal, it is essential to understand the cycle of addiction as defined by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

  • Binge/Intoxication: The stage where the patient consumes an addictive substance and experiences the positive effects.
  • Withdrawal/Negative Effect: The stage where the patient experiences negative emotions and possibly physical pain due to the absence of the substance.
  • Preoccupation/Anticipation: The stage where the patient seeks more of the addictive substance to feel the positive effects again.

Per the cycle of addiction, the withdrawal stage is the brain and body reacting to the absence of the substance. Withdrawal is a trap laid out by your brain and body to miss or crave the positive effects of the addictive substance. Withdrawal symptoms are inevitable during detoxification because, to follow the cycle, withdrawal has to make the patient miss the addictive substance.

Why Does Withdrawal Hurt So Badly?

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports that the cycle of addiction also changes how the patient’s brain submits neurotransmitters. During the first stage of the cycle, or the binge/intoxication stage, addictive substances produce rewarding and pleasurable effects. The brain’s processing of these rewarding effects creates an increase of activity in the dopamine system and natural opioid receptors. The increase in dopamine stimulates the reward/pleasure system of the brain (the basal ganglia) and tells your body that the addictive substance is a “good thing,” when in fact, it is detrimental.

In the absence of the addictive substance (withdrawal stage), dopamine levels decrease, causing the brain to panic a bit. The brain fuels negative emotions by diminishing activity in the brain’s reward/pleasure system and increasing activity in the part of the brain that causes stress (the extended amygdala). Over time, the increased damage to the brain’s reward/pleasure system causes a need for more of the addictive substance to feel “normal” or pain-free. The brain has tricked itself into needing the substance for its very survival.

Also, those who use addictive substances may neglect physical or mental care for themselves when they are chasing the positive effects of an addictive substance, causing pain and damage to other systems of the body. These will be felt in full-force during the withdrawal stage of detoxification. Withdrawal can be painful or even life-threatening if done improperly. 

How Do I Go Through Withdrawal Safely?

Withdrawal can be scary, and it may not be safe to try alone. Talk to your doctor or health care provider about detoxification and what you can expect from withdrawal symptoms. Registering into a rehabilitation facility or treatment center is also a great way to go through withdrawal safely. There is light at the end of the tunnel — after recovery, the brain and body are both able to heal.

Don’t go through the detoxification and withdrawal process alone. You deserve help and support throughout your recovery from substance abuse. At RECO Intensive, we understand that withdrawal symptoms are shocking and can be overwhelming to attempt alone. That is why we offer a safe space to go through withdrawal and learn about the brain and body’s process of healing from addictive substances. Our experienced alumni and professional staff will coach you through your darkest days and help you get back to a brighter future. Our services cover a myriad of addictions, including opioids, synthetic drugs, alcohol, cocaine, and many more. RECO Intensive offers individualized care, giving all of our guests the ability to choose what works best for them. We also treat co-occurring mental health conditions to help you make even more positive changes in your life. Are you ready to get started? Call RECO Intensive today at (561) 464-6533.


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