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Mental Vs. Physical Withdrawal From Drugs And/Or Alcohol

Medically reviewed by

Isaac Alexis, M.D., AAMA, AMP-BC

January 17, 2019

Understanding mental and physical withdrawal and how they affect the recovery process can help prepare an individual for the rigors of rehabilitation. Knowing what to expect can help an individual start a successful recovery.

Addiction is a complex problem, one that attacks a person both physically and mentally. As a result, people who plan on getting clean must also plan for a variety of physical and mental withdrawal symptoms. These symptoms are related to each other and feed on each other to elongate your addiction.

Physical Withdrawal Symptoms

Physical withdrawal will occur more quickly than psychological withdrawal. Onset time will vary depending on the severity of your addiction and the drug type. For example, severe opiate addiction may cause withdrawal symptoms as soon as 12 hours after your last use, while alcohol withdrawal can kick in as quickly as six hours.

Whenever symptoms do start to appear, it won’t be a good thing. Physical withdrawal is a painful condition that can often leave a person in an extremely negative state. For example, opiate withdrawal causes agitation, anxiety, muscle aches, runny noses, sweating, nausea, vomiting, cramps, dilated pupils, sudden physical pain, diarrhea, and even constipation. In severe cases, more serious problems, such as lack of consciousness and hallucination may also occur.

Physical withdrawal from alcohol is often as serious, if not more so, than opiate withdrawal. You’re likely to experience the shakes, headaches, insomnia, nausea, sudden sweats, confusion, anxiety, and anger. In severe cases, some people (about 2-9 percent of those affected) will experience seizures. In the worst-case scenario (about five percent of those affected), delirium tremens will cause a racing heart, hallucinations, confusion, and can even be fatal.

Other drugs, such as cocaine, have less severe withdrawal symptoms, as they are less physically addictive. For example, cocaine withdrawal occurs almost as soon as the drug leaves your body and lasts for a very short period of time. This is known as a cocaine “crash” and it includes such problems as anxiety, itching, fatigue, irritability, and intense cocaine cravings.

Cocaine is a drug, however, that has more severe psychological withdrawal symptoms. This is also true of a opiates and alcohol. Psychological withdrawal is a more complex problem because it cannot be treated with replacement medicines like physical withdrawal.

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Psychological Withdrawal Symptoms

Addiction is a unique disease in that it has both psychical and psychological symptoms. Withdrawal from these substances also takes on this two-faced nature. The main psychological concern with addiction is its impact on your behavioral health. In fact, many addiction experts are beginning to believe that the primary influence on addiction is not its physical effects, but its behavioral and psychological ones.

For example, in the article Behavioral Addiction Versus Substance Addiction: Correspondence Of Psychiatric And Psychological Views, it was declared that “Behavioral science experts believe that all entities capable of stimulating a person can be addictive; and whenever a habit changes into an obligation, it can be considered as an addiction. Researchers also believe that there are a number of similarities as well as some differences between drug addiction and behavioral addiction diagnostic symptoms.”

In the full article, the authors discuss how non-physically addictive behaviors, such as playing video games or using social media, could still activate a psychological addiction, one that could cause withdrawal when cut out of a person’s life.

They found that “… people who suffer from behavioral addictions, were tired, depressed, lonely, bashful, shy, and usually have other types of addiction… individuals with behavioral addiction have certain symptoms and will undergo the same consequences as those with alcohol and drug addiction and other obsessive behaviors.”

What does all this mean for psychological withdrawal? It means that it can occur even with substances that aren’t severely physically addictive. For example, cocaine is primarily psychologically addicting, as it provides users with a high and an escape from mental health problems. Marijuana, while also not entirely physically addictive, can hook a user psychologically to its calming effects.

As a result, it’s possible to suffer from psychological withdrawal symptoms without physical addiction. Quitting will make a person feel like a hole has been opened in their life. That’s because people so often use drugs and alcohol to self-medicate their mental health problems. Once that “helping hand” is gone, people feel lost, depressed, anxious, and incomplete, which is why relapse is so common.

Which Is Worse?

The severity of physical and mental withdrawal will vary on a patient-by-patient basis. Some people might find the physical symptoms of opiate withdrawal more painful than psychological withdrawal and will struggle through the early detox period. However, heavy drinkers might find it relatively easy to beat physical withdrawal, but psychologically impossible to give up their after-work drinking sessions with their buddies.

It is important to remember that physical withdrawal can increase the severity of your psychological withdrawal and vice-versa. For example, if you are already feeling severe depression about cutting heroin out of your life, night sweats and hallucinations will only increase your depression symptoms. Likewise, psychological withdrawal anxiety may cause your body to react negatively physically, increasing the pain of your physical withdrawal.

Take a few moments to ask yourself whether your addition is more physical or psychological in nature. Do you feel sick to your stomach after quitting or simply a state of anxiety about quitting that forces you to continue using? Do you fear suffering from physical pain more than losing the crutch of your addictive substance or vice versa? Honestly answering these questions can give you a feel for what you’re in for with your mental and physical withdrawal symptoms.

Treating Both With Dual Diagnosis Treatments

Beating mental and physical withdrawal requires committing yourself to a rehabilitation center and getting to the bottom of your addiction. Yes, there is likely a physical aspect to your addiction that compels you to continue using, but this is also fueled by mental health and psychological problems. It’s necessary to treat both simultaneously to decrease your addiction and manage your withdrawal.

Dual diagnosis is the existence of physical and mental addiction problems at the same time. Most cases of addiction have an underlying mental health problem. Dual diagnosis treatments can help decrease the severity of both. It is also necessary for helping you to move through the physical and mental withdrawal symptoms that trigger relapses and cravings.

A physical withdrawal regiment will use a variety of replacement medicines to help decrease the severity of your symptoms. For example, less severe opiates, such as methadone, will keep you from feeling too sick, while alcohol-replacement medication will soothe your physical pain. These treatments are crucial to your psychological withdrawal, as they help decrease the severity of those symptoms as well.

Treating psychological withdrawal will be trickier. You’ll have to go through individual, group, or even family therapy to identify your withdrawal symptoms and where they are originating. In this way, you can soothe the psychological pain of your withdrawal. Then, you can find an alternative treatment solution that takes the place of your drug, such as cognitive behavioral therapy.

By working on both your physical and mental withdrawal symptoms, you are setting yourself up for a life free from addiction. If it sounds easy, it’s important to remember that it’s no cakewalk. However, millions of people across the country work hard to beat their addiction every year, and by treating your physical and mental withdrawal symptoms, you can join their proud ranks.

Getting The Help You Need

Beating physical and mental withdrawal is a task that takes a lot of personal concentration and a dedication to improve overall health. It will take all of your strength and determination, but it is a task that is ultimately worth it. Fully recovering from addiction will open the door to a new life of sobriety, one you may have forgotten was possible to happily live.

Please contact us at RehabCenter.net today to learn more. We can help you attain new coping mechanisms that guide you toward beating physical and mental withdrawal in a healthy manner. Help is available, so please don’t be afraid to reach out.

U.S. National Library of Medicine - Opiate And Opioid Withdrawal

Victoria State Government - Alcohol Withdrawal

US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health - Behavioral Addiction Versus Substance Addiction: Correspondence Of Psychiatric And Psychological Views

Berkeley - Dual Diagnosis : Substance Dependence And Mental Illness

MentalHelp.net - Cocaine Withdrawal Symptoms, Timeline, Causes And Treatment

Harvard Medical School - Anxiety And Physical Health

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