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The Neuropsychology of Drug Withdrawal

Drug withdrawal symptoms are often associated with physical symptoms – it’s one of the first things people think of when they imagine what withdrawal must feel like. There is, however, a direct correlation between the physiological and psychological effects that happen as a result of withdrawal.

Those suffering from substance abuse disorders won’t just develop a physical dependence on the drug. They will also develop a psychological dependence. This is why there is a neuropsychological consequence associated with withdrawal.

What Are Neurophysiological Side Effects?

The neuropsychology of drug withdrawal surrounds what happens to the brain once an individual stops taking drugs. These can develop as cognitive or emotional side-effects and are often directly correlated to the physical effects of withdrawal.

Not all neurophysiological effects will be the same, though. Side effects experienced will depend on the type of drug abused. Someone suffering from opioid or benzodiazepine addiction will experience very different withdrawal symptoms than those suffering from alcohol addiction.

Let’s take a closer look at each substance and the neuropsychology of drug withdrawal associated with each.

Benzodiazepines

Benzodiazepines, or benzos, refer to a class of drugs known as sedatives. They’re usually taken to treat insomnia, muscle spasms, and anxiety. While doctors regularly prescribe benzos, they can become highly addictive.

During active addiction, benzos affect the brain by enhancing the gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) neurotransmitter. GABA helps inhibit neuron activity in the brain, creating a feeling of calmness. Benzos intensify this feeling and eventually cause the brain to develop a dependency.  Once this dependency is formed, the brain will crave the sedative side effects associated with benzos.

What Happens to the Brain During Benzo Withdrawal?

To understand how the brain reacts to drug withdrawal, you must first understand how the brain reacts when you abuse a drug.

Benzos, for example, have a calming and sedative effect. Once a dependency is developed, the brain will start to generate sensations of pleasure whenever you take the drug. In its absence, the brain will begin to crave those same sensations – this is what makes benzo withdrawal so challenging.

The onset of benzodiazepine withdrawal symptoms will develop one to two days after your last dose. As well as physical side-effects, such as nausea and sweating, you may also experience psychological symptoms, including:

  • Restlessness
  • Depression
  • Mood swings
  • Insomnia

These neuropsychological symptoms usually last between five and twenty-eight days. However, you may also experience protracted withdrawal. Here, symptoms can last up to twelve months or longer and include:

  • Increased bouts of insomnia
  • Anxiety
  • Lack of concentration
  • Depression

It’s estimated that only 10-25% of people who take benzos will experience protracted withdrawal. Although anyone is at risk of a protracted withdrawal, it’s most commonly associated with those who have taken the drug for a long time.

Alcohol

Drinking alcohol becomes a significant problem when an individual becomes dependent on it. If a heavy drinker suddenly stops, they’ll experience what’s known as alcohol withdrawal syndrome (AWS).

What Happens to the Brain During AWS?

The more often you drink alcohol, the more likely you are to develop a dependence on it. As with benzos, this dependence isn’t purely physical. In fact, it’s your brain that causes you to become addicted in the first place.

As a depressant, alcohol lowers your inhibitions and helps many feel calm and relaxed. Once a heavy drinker abstains from alcohol, the brain tends to get overstimulated and will start to experience cravings. This can cause mental and cognitive symptoms to develop.

AWS can begin as early as six hours after your last drink and can last for weeks. As well as physical side-effects, such as high blood pressure and nausea, you might experience psychological symptoms including:

  • Insomnia
  • Confusion
  • Nightmares
  • Anxiety
  • Mood swings

Those with severe AWS might encounter delirium tremens (DT) and experience:

  • Increased bouts of confusion
  • Hallucinations
  • Depression

These psychological symptoms will often accompany physical side effects, such as an increased heart rate and seizures. Severe AWS can be life-threatening, so seek emergency help if your symptoms get progressively worse.

Opiates

Opiates belong to a class of drugs referred to as opioids. They are commonly prescribed to treat pain. Among the most popular opioids are heroin, codeine, and morphine – all of which are highly addictive.

What Happens to the Brain During Opiate Withdrawal?

Since opiates release endorphins – the brain’s feel-good chemical – it’s easy to develop a drug addiction to them. Endorphins boost your sense of pleasure and satisfaction. They additionally elevate your mood. Once you stop taking opiates, these feelings will start to wear off, and your brain will crave the rush of endorphins. In the absence of opiates, you’ll experience psychological withdrawal symptoms including:

  • Restlessness
  • Anxiety
  • Insomnia

These side effects can develop twenty-four hours after you stop using the drug and become more intense over time.

To Conclude

Mental health plays a significant role in addiction and recovery. While the psychological effects of withdrawal may seem scary, they can be reduced and managed in a secure environment.

If you find your life impaired by addiction, don’t try to quit alone. Addiction treatment is available at a wide range of dedicated rehabilitation facilities, all of which are trained to provide you with the best care possible.

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