The Brain and Drug Withdrawal

Heroin, meth, cocaine, marijuana and narcotic prescription medications change the way your brain functions. Over time, your brain can become dependent on drugs to experience sensations of contentment, pleasure or euphoria. When you suddenly stop using drugs, your brain must adapt to the absence of these substances. The physical and neurological symptoms you experience during this adaptation period are known as withdrawal.

While the physical effects of withdrawal may last for only a few days, the mental and psychological effects may last much longer. For example, the National Institutes of Health notes that heavy cocaine users may continue to experience the neurological side effects of cocaine withdrawal, like intense cravings, depression and anxiety, for months after they quit. Medication, counseling, and participation in support groups can help you cope with the effects of drug withdrawal on your brain and body.

How Does Drug Abuse Change the Brain?

To understand how drug withdrawal affects you neurologically, you must know how drug abuse alters your brain in the first place. Your brain naturally produces certain chemicals — such as dopamine, serotonin or norepinephrine — that give you a sensation of pleasure or a surge of energy when you perform certain activities. These sensations serve a vital function by rewarding you for healthy, life-sustaining actions like consuming food or being intimate with a sexual partner.

When you take drugs, your brain becomes hardwired to generate sensations of pleasure in response to the drug. The day-to-day activities that used to give you a sense of happiness or pleasure may lose their appeal. Meanwhile, as your brain adapts to the drug, you’ll need more coke, meth or heroin to get the same high. Drug abuse turns into addiction when you no longer have control over your drive to seek and use drugs. Even if you want to quit, your brain will continue to trigger cravings for a drug in order to experience that burst of energy or euphoria that it associates with drug use.

What Happens When You Stop Taking Drugs?

When you stop taking drugs, your brain must adjust to a sudden change in the levels of biochemicals that it produces. Chemicals like serotonin and dopamine have a direct impact on your moods and emotions. An alteration in the production of these chemicals will temporarily affect the way you think, feel and perceive the world around you. As your brain adjusts, you may experience:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Cravings
  • Restlessness
  • Poor concentration
  • Poor memory
  • Mood swings
  • Mental fatigue
  • Insomnia

In the first few weeks or months after you stop taking drugs, you may feel hostile, irritable, sad or restless. You may simply have a sense of “not feeling good,” a condition called dysphoria. In a study of patients going through opiate detox, the Indian Journal of Psychiatry reported that some participants experienced neurological symptoms like confusion, sensory alterations and delirium — side effects that have traditionally been associated only with alcohol withdrawal syndrome.

Learning how to experience pleasure in sober activities is one of the biggest challenges of recovery. Your rehab treatment team can give you the support you need to get through this tough phase of neurological withdrawal, so you can learn how to enjoy a healthy, drug-free life.

Is There Any Way to Prevent Withdrawal?

Drug withdrawal is a process that varies from one individual to another. Some people experience severe neurological side effects, while others get through this stage with relatively little discomfort. Because it’s so hard to predict the nature or severity of your symptoms, the safest way to go through withdrawal is to enroll in a professional rehab program. Addiction treatment centers are equipped to help you deal with the psychological side effects of withdrawal, making it easier for you to get clean and stay clean. Some of the rehab services used to minimize the effects of withdrawal include:

  • Anti-addiction medications like naltrexone, methadone or acamprosate
  • Individual psychotherapy with trained addiction therapists
  • Access to 12-step meetings and other support groups
  • Holistic therapies like massage, acupuncture and hypnotherapy to reduce the stress and agitation of withdrawal

Unfortunately, the only way to prevent drug withdrawal completely is to avoid using illicit drugs in the first place. Once your brain has developed a tolerance to a drug, you’ll have to experience a certain level of withdrawal when you quit. However, there are a lot of resources to help you deal with that discomfort so you can prepare for a new life in recovery. The drug rehab specialists at Axis are here to offer you help and support 24 hours a day.