Why Detox From Drugs or Alcohol Hurts

The pain and discomfort associated with abstinence and drug detox can sometimes be a barrier to treatment for addicts who want to stop using. Fortunately, not everyone experiences symptoms, and for those that do, the worst is generally over in less than 10 days. However, there’s more to the experience than physical discomfort – there is other pain involved in detox and in recovery that addicts and alcoholics should be prepared for and learn to deal with.

1.) Physical Pain and Discomfort

The physical symptoms associated with drug or alcohol detox are the most severe in terms of the potential dangers. The more serious symptoms include cardiovascular conditions, seizures and respiratory distress. Less serious symptoms include sweating, nausea, vomiting, “skin crawling,” headache, migraine, sleeplessness, restlessness, poor appetite and many others.

The physical pain of detox is primarily instigated by Acute Withdrawal Syndrome or AWS. AWS is caused when neurons that were suppressed by drug use or drinking suddenly become active again all at once following abstinence. Damage to neurons and nerve circuits also cause a reduced ability to handle stress in areas of the brain and central nervous system, which can also be perceived as physical pain and discomfort.

2.) Emotional Pain

Many people going through detox and withdrawal experience emotional pain. This includes depression, feelings of sadness, inability to feel joy, irrational responses to emotional stimulus, detachment from other people, anger and rage, insecurity, feelings of isolation and loneliness and other emotional disturbances.

Most of the emotional symptoms of AWS are caused by dysphoria – the opposite of euphoria. In simple terms, when people get high they are seeking some type of euphoria, which is produced by various neurotransmitters in the brain such as dopamine, glutamate, serotonin and others. By “tricking” the body into releasing these “feel good” substances, eventually a desensitization occurs where the body only produces these substances when prompted by the introduction of a foreign substance, i.e.; Cocaine withdrawal, heroin, ecstasy, etc.

Consequently, when people stop using drugs they also often temporarily lose the ability to feel certain feelings; generally the specific feelings sought by drug use. For instance, cocaine users who gained confidence form the drug will likely feel meek and insecure during early abstinence and withdrawal. Morphine users accustomed to feelings of intense joy may instead feel intense sorrow during detox. Marijuana users that were once relaxed by pot become anxious during withdrawal, and meth users who obtained energy bursts from the drug might feel exhausted and have difficulty with energy levels.

3.) Practical Pain

Few people count on the practical pain of sudden drug cessation. Within a few days patients generally begin to start seeing their situation more accurately than they had in the past while still using drugs. What they often realize is that their life is in shambles: financial troubles are likely to have arisen, jobs are often lost, careers destroyed and educational opportunities shattered. Additionally, many drug addicts and alcoholics face legal difficulties as a result of their behaviors while intoxicated or substance-seeking.

Practical pain can be as simple as the stress of worrying about finding a new place to live after detox, or it can be as complicated as a promising career now smoldering in metaphorical ashes. These issues of practicality can cause emotional pain, but overall the pain caused by such problems comes as s result of the stress of knowing that all too soon, they must be faced and dealt with.

4.) Embarrassment and Shame

Completely separate from any of the above types of stress, pain or discomfort is the embarrassment that many alcoholics and drug addicts feel when they finally get clean. Often occurring while still undergoing detox, many people in the early stages of recovery feel embarrassed for the behaviors they exhibited while actively using, as well as shame for the things they did and the people they hurt in order to continue substance abuse despite the best efforts of their support networks and the obvious consequences of continued addictive or alcoholic behavior.

This pain of embarrassment and shame is important to mention because even if an addict doesn’t experience many physical, emotional or practical signs of pain or discomfort, they are almost certain to feel ashamed and embarrassed to have sunk so low that detox and rehab is required to quite literally save their life when they were unable to do so themselves.


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