Addiction is a physical and chronic illness, affecting the brain and body alike, and requiring committed and long-term treatment. One reason addiction is a chronic illness is because it is recurring. Addiction cannot be treated in a single session, and a single course of treatment often isn’t enough – to beat an addiction into remission and keep a person sober, one has to take on a multimodal approach that prioritizes the patient’s circumstances and challenges, rather than molding them to the treatment.
A large part of managing addiction in the long-term is working with a patient to find effective ways to avoid and deal with cravings. Withdrawal symptoms are also a common symptom of addiction, occurring a few hours after beginning abstinence.
Understanding Cravings and Withdrawal Symptoms
Cravings are, for lack of a better term, memories that the brain holds onto. They resurface and gain traction in moments of stress, as well as boredom, or for no reason at all at times. Cravings can be weak or strong but do weaken over time. In line with the point about patient-centric treatment, managing a recovering addict’s cravings may involve any number of different techniques and approaches.
Withdrawal symptoms occur for a large variety of reasons. The first and most common is related to a person’s overall health. Addiction often causes neglect, especially in matters of hygiene and diet. As an addiction worsens, both the physical incentive and the emotional motivation to stay healthy fades away. Heavy drug use numbs the body and mind, causing lowered appetite, inducing an analgesic effect, and reducing cognitive function.
When the drug begins to wash completely out of the system and sobriety sets in, the body goes into a short recalibration. All the negative physical habits an addict may have been engaging in during their period of addiction come to light all at once.
In other cases, withdrawal symptoms are a matter of the changes ongoing within the brain during addiction. As a person begins to physically depend on a drug to function, their neurotransmission changes accordingly. An abrupt end of drug use can wreak havoc on a body that is used to the way the brain has been functioning under regular drug use.
Cravings and withdrawal symptoms can be successfully managed in any good recovery program, but these programs must be adjusted to the specific needs of each individual seeking help. How you approach them is a matter of personal preference, as well as a matter of finding an effective form of treatment specifically for you.
Cold Turkey vs. Gradual Weaning
Withdrawal symptoms occur hours after a person last used a drug. They last days to weeks, depending on the drug, the severity of the addiction, the age and size of the addict, and various other factors such as overall health and lifestyle during early recovery. After withdrawal is over, withdrawal symptoms may return weeks after the drug was last taken. This is called post-acute withdrawal, and occurs for different reasons than initial withdrawal, but with similar symptoms.
Withdrawal symptoms are rarely fatal, but they are always uncomfortable. Every addictive drug has the potential of producing extremely uncomfortable symptoms. These usually include feelings of nausea, sweating, heart rate increases, flu-like symptoms, diarrhea, dizziness, and various other symptoms depending on the drug.
Some drugs are more dangerous than others to recover from. Going cold turkey (abruptly quitting) on heavy drinking can kill you. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can be very severe. Other depressants are similarly dangerous, including anti-anxiety drugs and sedatives like Xanax and Valium, as well as barbiturates and tranquilizers.
However, most addictive drugs produce uncomfortable but non-fatal symptoms. How long these last and how severe they might be will depend on person to person. It’s very important to discuss withdrawal with a medical professional and manage it with a doctor. You can go cold turkey if a doctor permits it, but if possible, try and go through withdrawal in a medical facility, rehab facility, or addiction clinic. It is not recommended to go cold turkey at home, unsupervised, and especially alone.
Do not go cold turkey on drugs like alcohol, benzodiazepine, and other similar depressants. Some also recommend weaning off opioids rather than go cold turkey, due to the intensity of the cravings experienced after an opioid addiction. Managing the cravings of an opioid addiction is very challenging, especially without proper support.
Medication, including methadone, buprenorphine (weaker opioids), and naltrexone (an opioid antagonist, counteracting opioids in the system), can help a recovering addict tremendously. However, many fear switching from one addiction to the next if they begin relying on their medication. Discussing these fears with a professional can help you assess your options and figure out the best path forward.
Find Ways to Spend Your Time
When managing cravings, the first thing you will want to look at is your schedule. Keeping yourself busy is a good way to avoid cravings and relapses, but it isn’t a perfect solution. You shouldn’t cram your schedule full of things to do to ensure you don’t have a second in the day to think of anything but the next hour or two. Instead, manage your schedule in a way that helps you live a healthier, more balanced lifestyle.
Addiction symptoms and cravings are generally reduced when both the body and mind are in a better state of being. Pay attention to what you eat, eat regularly, get moving and do some exercise at least thrice a week, try and find a form of exercise you genuinely enjoy, and make sure to get enough sleep. This simple and short checklist isn’t easy and may take a while to transition into. Seek the support of family and therapeutic help to deal with sleep issues, manage your work and life obligations, find time to yourself, and set up a routine you can stick to.
On the opposite side of the spectrum is being mindful. Mindfulness, when used properly with one-on-one psychotherapy, can help you find ways to deal with your cravings by reflecting, taking a moment to step away from your own perspective, and consider – objectively – why you shouldn’t give in.
Mindfulness does not always work and is often more useful as a diagnostic tool to help you figure out what’s causing you to crave, rather than ending cravings. But in conjunction with therapy, it can help you move past some very difficult roadblocks in your recovery process. Give it a go.
Many of the suggestions above involve finding professional help. However, this isn’t always possible. Sometimes, finding a professional to talk about your problems isn’t an option – but finding a sober living home could be. Through sober living, you enter a drug-free environment and can often continue to maintain your regular obligations towards work or school life while fighting against cravings. Sober living homes live and breathe recovery, encouraging tenants to engage in group meetings, find meetings or therapy outside of the community, and help contribute to the community through chores and group activities.
Regardless of what works for you, learning to manage and overcome cravings and withdrawal symptoms is a big step in early recovery, and will continue to be valuable throughout life.