How to Deal With Withdrawal Symptoms

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People who beat drug and alcohol addictions feel much better after they quit, but they typically endure a very difficult stage before they begin to feel better: withdrawal.

If you've used alcohol, heroinmeth, or other substances for only a short time or have taken only small doses, you might not experience withdrawal. However, if you've been binge drinking, using alcohol and/or drugs for a long time, or taking increasingly higher doses over a short time, you might feel quite unwell physically for a while when you stop.

Withdrawal is not the same as a post-intoxication hangover that people generally sleep off.

Common Symptoms of Withdrawal

Biological changes occur in your brain during withdrawal as your body seeks homeostasis, causing a mix of physical and emotional symptoms. You might experience some, all, or none of these, depending on the length and intensity of your addiction.

Depression

Although depressive symptoms feel worse than everyday sadness and can mimic clinical depression, they don't usually last as long. You might experience:

  • Feelings of hopelessness, doom, and low self-worth
  • A lack of energy and enthusiasm
  • Feeling that life ahead is empty without the thrill of getting high or drunk
  • Frequent crying
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Erratic eating and sleeping patterns

Remember: These feelings are a normal part of the process. They're temporary and last only a few days.

You might even feel let down and disappointed that something that felt so good turned out to be harmful, and leaving such a big part of your life behind might feel like grieving.

Anxiety

You might feel anxiety that's worse than everyday nervousness—a bit like an unpleasant but short-lived anxiety disorder.

As with depression, some anxiety during withdrawal is to be expected. If you took a drug or drank alcohol to relax, you're likely to feel tenser. Likewise, if you were essentially self-medicating, you might fear what will happen without your usual way of coping.

Physical symptoms of anxiety can make you feel as if something scary is happening. Your breathing and heart rate might increase, sometimes to the point where you feel you can't catch your breath, or that you're having a heart attack, even though you're not.

Mood Swings

Rapid fluctuations in mood are common during withdrawal. One minute, you might feel exhausted, as if life is no longer worth living; the next, you might feel the urge to run away because it feels like something awful is about to happen. This back-and-forth can be draining, for both you and those around you.

Fatigue

As with anxiety and depression, fatigue is common and normal for people withdrawing from drugs and alcohol. Your body must recover from the damage that drugs and alcohol do, as well as from sleep deprivation, sleep disturbance, overstimulation, and other effects of addiction.

Fatigue is also a common symptom of depression and an after-effect of anxiety. You also might feel tired from the many thoughts and emotions that can overwhelm you when you don't have alcohol or drugs to numb them.

How to Deal With Withdrawal Symptoms

Keep these tips in mind as you navigate the first days and weeks of your healthier lifestyle:

  1. Feel and work through your grief. You're grieving the loss of something you enjoyed—perhaps a significant part of your life. Leaning into the emotions can help you come to terms with them.
  2. If your feelings of depression continue, see your doctor o therapist. You might be experiencing a substance-induced mood disorder, or you might have had a pre-existing mood disorder that was masked by your drug use.
  3. Remember that you are safe, and the anxiety you might be feeling is your body going through a normal healing process. If your anxiety symptoms intensify and are accompanied by other physical symptoms, however, you might be experiencing more significant withdrawal issues and should contact your physician.
  4. Remind yourself that, like other symptoms, your mood swings herald big, positive changes in your body and mind. Life really is worth living, and very soon, it will get much better.
  5. Rest. Withdrawal fatigue is exhausting, but people try to keep going at their usual pace. Instead, listen to your body. Consider taking a break from your usual activities. Don't socialize for a few days, and take a sick leave from work. Get enough sleep.
  6. Practice relaxation skills. Try meditation, deep breathing, exercise—whatever might help you rest your mind and body.
  7. Get help. If withdrawal is interfering with your ability to function or if you feel you can't cope, see your healthcare provider or talk with a therapist as soon as possible. They can suggest ways to help calm your nervous system and challenge negative thoughts. You will not be judged or shamed; these professionals help people like you every day and have access to an arsenal of ways to help. Talking with someone who understands and validates your feelings can help ease your turmoil.

How Long Does Withdrawal Last?

The duration of your withdrawal symptoms depends on the substance you used, along with the length and intensity of your addiction—typically, just a few days, but weeks or months in some cases.

When to Get Help

After the first week or two of withdrawal, your needs change. This is typically a good time to get treatment, which will help you understand why you drank or used drugs in the first place, and help set you up for a life without alcohol or drugs. Some people can do this on their own, but many benefit from extra support during the first few months to avoid relapse.

Occasionally, withdrawal symptoms go on for months, or they go away and then come back. This is known as post-acute withdrawal syndrome. If it happens to you, talk to your doctor about getting more help.

If mood changes are severe, last longer than other withdrawal symptoms, or include thoughts of harming yourself or suicide, get help immediately. Contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 (or have someone do it for you) for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

A Word From Verywell

Facing depression, anxiety, and other emotional symptoms during withdrawal can be very difficult. Know that you are not weak; this is challenging for almost everyone. However, you won't regret your decision once you come through withdrawal. The payoff is a healthier, happier, more productive lifestyle at home, work, and play.

Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

By Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD
Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD is a psychologist, professor, and Director of the Centre for Health Leadership and Research at Royal Roads University, Canada.