The First Hurdle: Getting Through Drug or Alcohol Withdrawal

Detox may seem daunting, but it's very doable in a safe setting. Here's what to expect in the first step on your path toward recovery

August 15, 2023
Hurdles at an indoor track

No matter how much you want to get sober, you’re likely feeling some uncertainty about taking the first steps. That’s normal. If you’re entering an addiction treatment program, you probably don’t know what it’ll be like. And then there’s that cruel irony of quitting drugs and alcohol: Your body punishes you with withdrawal when you try.

This is where we remind you that the substantial majority of people who seek to achieve recovery do succeed (7 in 10, in fact). Addiction treatment may be an unfamiliar experience to you, but it’s designed to be a positive one. And with modern medical care, withdrawal is manageable — a temporary discomfort.

At this stage, the ball’s in your court. If you let fear and uncertainty take over, you may never get the help you need. Untreated substance use disorder (SUD) can affect all areas of your life and significantly impact your physical and mental health. We’re of the mind that you deserve high-quality treatment to help you recover from addiction and substance issues. Detox is the first step.

Why Do Some People Avoid Addiction Treatment?

Treatment is time-consuming and takes a lot of determination to see through. It can be expensive, though there are options for recovery available to anyone. Some people feel ambivalent about getting sober and may not understand all the benefits that come with it. Hesitancy can also be pretty simple: The whole damn thing about addiction is that it’s hard to stop.

However, once someone decides to go for recovery, they may still be afraid to get started because they don’t know what’s in store for them during detox and withdrawal.

Many, perhaps most, people with drug or alcohol dependence or addiction have experienced some withdrawal symptoms when they haven’t had access to substances. Knowing the type of discomfort they might experience can make them think twice about entering treatment.

But trust this much: The long-term benefits of recovery will far outweigh any early, temporary symptoms and side effects. Medically supervised detox will also reduce any adverse reactions and limit the effects of withdrawal.

The goals of medically assisted detox programs are straightforward:

  • Evaluation
  • Stabilization
  • Engagement in treatment

You can successfully recover from substance use disorder by using professional addiction treatment and detox services. Here’s why.

Detox and Withdrawal: What To Expect

You won’t be alone while you go through detox, and this is key. The medical professionals at the detox facility will ensure that you experience less severe symptoms.

Withdrawal without the support of a medical team can be painful and dangerous. Some people going through withdrawal alone experience seizures, hallucinations, delusions, severe physical reactions and other side effects that can cause serious injury, illness or even death. There is a significant danger of relapse and overdose during withdrawal.

With an addiction recovery specialist, you will stay safe and comfortable. These people are trained to monitor you, give you any necessary medications and treatments, and keep you feeling grounded and encouraged.

Common Withdrawal Symptoms and Side Effects

It can help to be prepared for withdrawal. The type of symptoms and side effects you encounter will depend on multiple factors:

  • Type of substance used and dosage
  • How long the substance was used
  • Whether you have gone through withdrawal before
  • The kind of support you have to help you cope

Addiction treatment programs that offer medically assisted detox usually have specialized services. No matter what substance you are detoxing from, the care team can ensure you get the right support to keep you from relapsing, feeling overwhelmed or becoming seriously ill.

Although addiction specialists can eliminate and manage many symptoms, some will still be noticeable. A few common symptoms and side effects of withdrawal include:

  • Irritability
  • Extreme mood swings
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Changes to appetite
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Intense cravings for the substance
  • Muscle weakness
  • Fatigue
  • Body aches
  • Tremors

Depending on your situation, the symptoms can range from mild to severe — but again, much less dangerous and unpredictable than if you try this alone. In some cases, people must slowly be eased off the substance with the help of prescription medications and medication-assisted treatment (MAT).

You have a say in all this. After joining a treatment program, you can collaborate with your care team to determine which approach will work best for you.

Why You Need Medically Supervised Detox for Drug or Alcohol Withdrawal

Even if your withdrawal symptoms have not been severe in the past, it’s hard to know how the experience will go this time, or how to manage the symptoms, without the support of a medical professional. For example, having had past withdrawals can make the symptoms of future ones more intense.

Sometimes people need specialized care services that only an addiction recovery specialist can provide. Chronic alcohol use can cause particularly dangerous side effects during detox and withdrawal. According to the journal Alcohol Health and Research World, “The most severe manifestations of withdrawal include delirium tremens, hallucinations and seizures.” Alcohol and benzodiazepine withdrawals can be deadly without medical care; opioid withdrawals can make people feel so ill that they use again and potentially overdose.

That’s not meant to scare you. Detox is generally safe and manageable — so long as it’s done in a clinical setting or with the aid of a health care provider. Some benefits of being monitored by a medical professional include reduced risk of relapse or recurrence of use, 24/7 access to medical care, and decreased symptom severity. You’ll also have the opportunity to plan for what happens next in your recovery.

What Happens Next?

Many treatment options are available for people recovering from substance use disorders. Sometimes, a continuum of care may be necessary to gradually ease a person’s transition from detox to inpatient treatment to independent sobriety. After detox, it’s crucial to have some kind of support in place, which generally means clinical care and engaging in recovery counseling.

If you’re overcoming opioid use disorder, for instance, it’s important to start medication-assisted treatment if your care providers advise it, because cravings can be extreme, and relapse is dangerous: Once you’ve detoxed, your tolerance is lower and risk of overdose may be heightened if you use again.

Some of the most common treatment options during and after detox include:

  • Inpatient rehabilitation
  • Residential care
  • Partial hospitalization programs (PHP)
  • Intensive outpatient programs (IOP)
  • Outpatient programs
  • Sober housing
  • Extended care or continuing care
  • Individual or group therapy

Your care team will guide you through choosing a treatment plan. You may need to go through several different programs before you feel confident in your ability to maintain your recovery outside the structure of rehabilitation. At some point, you may explore programs beyond clinical care, engaging in peer support networks like 12-step programs or in other recovery communities.

The First Step of Long-Term Recovery

The detox process is the first stage of treatment. Long-term recovery after chronic alcohol or drug use usually involves integrated care and multiple treatment or nonclinical recovery programs.

It sounds like a lot, but the end goal is that you gradually regain confidence and independence as you learn essential skills and build a solid foundation for long-term sobriety.

Detox may sound daunting, but it’s a very short part of a long, fantastic journey toward a better life.

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