What You Need to Know About Psychological Withdrawal

young man with Psychological Withdrawals
by Matt Berry on 23 June 2015 in Health and Wellness, Life in Recovery | updated on 20 July 2016

Individuals who are in the early stages of recovery typically experience two types of withdrawal: acute withdrawal (psychical) and post-acute withdrawal (psychological). During active addiction, the brain becomes conditioned to rely on substances for certain chemical processes, which affects how we think and feel.

Once we stop using a substance, the mind must readjust back into a normal homeostasis.

Symptoms of Psychological Withdrawal

To better understand psychological withdrawal, let’s look at an example.

Many drugs superficially increase the production of dopamine, the neurotransmitter responsible for feelings of reward and pleasure. Once someone stops using a substance that affects dopamine levels, the brain must relearn how to produce dopamine naturally. This can take time, and the individual may experience psychological withdrawal. For many, overcoming this psychological withdrawal can be the most difficult challenge in recovery.

Unlike physical withdrawal symptoms, which typically last three days to a week, psychological withdrawal symptoms may linger for up to two years.

Despite the potentially long-lasting symptoms of psychological withdrawal, it’s important to know that the severity of these symptoms dramatically diminishes over time. This is especially true for those who receive proper aftercare treatment.

Symptoms of psychological withdrawal include:

  • Depression
  • Agitation
  • Emotional Overreaction or Numbness
  • Sleeping Problems
  • Sensitivity to Stress
  • Lack of Motivation
  • Rapid Mood Changes

For many, this mental form of withdrawal can be a roller coaster that’s filled with varying degrees of the above symptoms. Unfortunately, the inability to recognize and cope with psychological withdrawal symptoms is often the catalyst for relapse.

Treating This Unique Form of Withdrawal

Although treatment programs vary, three evidence-based methods are commonly employed to treat psychological withdrawal in early recovery.

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy helps individuals identify, cope and avoid situations and mindsets that agitate psychological withdrawal symptoms. This form of therapy offers new perspective on how to deal with stress and emotions without substances.
  • Motivational Interviewing reminds individuals of their self-worth and value. Often, as the brain’s functioning readjusts, individuals may experience low self-esteem. It is important to understand that this may be a symptom of psychological withdrawal, rather than a long-term psychological condition.
  • Self-Help Groups offer fellowship with individuals who have experienced (or are experiencing) the same psychological withdrawal. Support networks, such as 12-Step groups, can be incredibly helpful for those suffering the psychological affects of newly acquired sobriety.

Maintaining Your Sobriety, Strengthening the Recovery Process

…verbalizing (and even venting) your thoughts may help to stabilize your emotions and gain new perspective.Professional treatment provides the necessary tools to deal with the psychological remnants of addiction…including psychological withdrawal. However, you must learn how to use these tools effectively. When someone is riding the psychological withdrawal roller coaster, it is important to slow the ride down.

Whether it’s with a counselor, a friend, a family member or support network, verbalizing (and even venting) your thoughts may help to stabilize your emotions and gain new perspective. Also, goal setting and scheduling helps alleviate the “ups and downs” of psychological withdrawal. Our minds are both powerful and delicate, so cognitive training and emotional care are both essential when we experience the symptoms of psychological withdrawal.

Learn more about the steps to complete drug and alcohol recovery.

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