Managing Withdrawal Symptoms in Early Recovery

Managing the Symptoms of Withdrawal

After the very important decision to move forward in your recovery has been made, the first of your many battles toward victory begins. Many report that the most difficult battle occurs in the beginning, as both your body, and your consciousness, fight against making the change that your heart knows is for the best. Being equipped with the knowledge of what is to come – and being armed with the right kind of support system – can make your transition to a life of sobriety go much more smoothly.


Physical Symptoms of Withdrawal

The type of physical response that the body has to withdrawal depends on what substance, or substances, you are needing to rid your body of. Physical symptoms range from headaches and insomnia, to risk of violent seizures. A reputable substance abuse treatment program will be prepared with information about the physical withdrawal symptoms that are specific to the substances you are weaning yourself from.

What is going on, physically, with nearly all withdrawals is that the brain is freaking out. Over time, the natural chemicals that the brain produces toward regulating bodily functions are replaced by the substance. The brain becomes lazy, in a sense, and learns to wait for the foreign chemical to do the job. Because it has taken time for the brain to learn that it can stop producing certain hormones and chemicals, it will take time for it to learn to start up again. Removing the influence of the foreign substances is the first step that is required for the brain to recognize that it needs to get back on the important task of regulating our biology. This period of the brain re-learning to fully function can be physically intense.

Patience is the key when it comes to allowing our brains the time to get back toward normal functioning. While some may choose to sweat out the process by going cold turkey, others may find the option of reducing discomfort, through medical means, more appealing. Drug treatment centers often offer substitute substances as a means of taking the edge off of the physical withdrawal. These medically approved substances can be tailored to make the withdrawal experience less of a shock to the system, with the goal of eventually not needing them.



Cognitive Symptoms of Withdrawal

When we speak of cognition, we are referring to thoughts. While thoughts do occur in the brain, they are different from the chemical production and electrical impulses which comprise our physical biology. Thoughts are the way that we see the world, and the way that we interpret events.

When we are operating under the influence of an addictive substance, we are not able to access our full range of cognition. With many addictive substances, our ability to accurately assess the consequences of our actions is impaired. We are not able to consider the future in a realistic way. We tend to dwell in the past, or to use the substance as an artificial means to stay only in the present.

Once the cognitively impairing effects of the drug have begun to wear off, our thoughts may begin clear. Because the drugs have often prevented us from properly processing and working through issues, our thoughts of the future can look like a dead end. We may begin to replay experiences of past trauma and failure, like watching a tragic movie for the 50th time. We may bemoan our lost time and opportunities. We may be tempted to regret our choices.

All of these self-defeating trains of thought can tempt us back toward escaping the discomfort through our addictions. It is important, during recovery, to surround yourself with knowledgeable people, who can help to guide you toward new ways of thinking. Just as the brain takes time to relearn to properly function, positive thinking takes time to properly root.



Emotional Symptoms of Withdrawal

Emotions can be tricky, as they are able to be initiated by both our bodily chemistry – such as through hormones – and by our thoughts.  Emotions often work as a respondent to other things that are going on.  Other times, we don’t know why we are feeling what we are feeling, we only know that we don’t feel positive.

Those who have spent a long amount of time using substances may find the experience of sitting with emotions very uncomfortable. Substances have a way of numbing us toward facing emotionally distressing issues. Some will even use substances for exactly the purpose of avoidance of emotional discomfort. Ceasing the drug and alcohol dependence means that these uncomfortable sensations will need to be fully experienced.

Emotions, by themselves, are innocuous. They don’t have any ability to genuinely harm us, or control us, no matter how powerful they may present themselves. The power of emotions comes from us allowing them to influence our thoughts and actions. When our emotions are prompting us to act in a positive way, it is a beautiful thing. When they inspire us toward going back into self-destruction mode, they are not working as an ally.

While working through your recovery, prepare to experience a wide range of emotions. Initially, you may experience a series of positive emotions, which can be related to the idea of hope and freedom that accompanies your resolve to make changes for the better. As the withdrawal goes on, these emotions are likely to shift. Chemical changes within the brain may suddenly withdraw the feel-good chemicals, leaving your emotional state in a wreck. You may feel scared, angry, and hopeless. What you decide to do with these feelings – through subsequent thoughts and actions – can make or break your success in recovery.

One useful approach toward managing the negative emotions which accompany withdrawal is to engage in mindfulness techniques. Inspired by Eastern meditation practices, mindfulness involves learning to just exist in the moment. With mindfulness, we are able to observe that we are experiencing negative emotions, but we are not allowing our mind to put any stock into it. We can acknowledge that we are feeling poorly, but not place any pressure on ourselves to do anything about it. The negative feeling just is – for the moment – and it will pass, in another.

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