Drug or alcohol addiction is a chronic brain disease that affects a person mentally and physically. When an individual stops using substances, they go through a period of detox and withdrawal. The symptoms they experience during this initial stage of withdrawal typically last for several days to a few weeks depending on the drug involved. This stage is known as acute withdrawal. But for many people in recovery, another group of uncomfortable, aggravating withdrawal symptoms follows. This withdrawal stage is called post-acute withdrawal syndrome.
What Is Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome?
Commonly referred to as PAWS, post-acute withdrawal syndrome refers to the withdrawal symptoms that linger as the brain is still learning to function without toxic substances. Symptoms are generally psychological and emotional rather than physical and can be quite intense. Episodes of PAWS are unexpected and sporadic. They come and go and can last for several days. Post-acute withdrawal syndrome can last anywhere from several months to two or more years depending on the drug used, the length of time used, and the severity of the addiction.
Symptoms of Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome
Many people who experience PAWS describe the symptoms as feeling like they are on an emotional roller coaster, with the ups and downs coming in waves. Stress seems to increase the severity of symptoms, but they can flare up without any apparent reason.
PAWS engenders feelings of anxiety, panic, irritability, depression, and sadness. A person may exhibit aggression or hostility and have a low energy level. They may have mood swings with severe highs and lows, exhibit obsessive-compulsive behaviors, have difficulty maintaining social relationships, and have an increased sensitivity to stress. Cognitive tasks such as thinking clearly, problem-solving, learning new things, making decisions, and memory recall are difficult. The person often has delayed reflexes, feels dizzy, and has problems with balance.
Because of the severity of some symptoms, PAWS can lead to relapse. The person becomes desperate to escape the symptoms and may start to crave substances once again.
Coping Strategies for PAWS
Dealing with PAWS requires preparation and a commitment to healthy coping strategies. The University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health offers suggestions on ways to cope with PAWS.
- Identify and stay in contact with your support system. People in your support system could include family, friends, a 12-Step sponsor or group members, health care providers, counselors, spiritual or religious advisors. Everyone in your support group supports your recovery, and it is important to have strong connections with them.
- Identify the emotions that make you want to use drugs or drink alcohol. They may include sadness, anger, boredom, loneliness, or stress. If you feel your emotional triggers arise, contact someone in your support system.
- Avoid people, places, situations, and things you associate with your previous drug or alcohol use. By doing this, you lower your risk of relapse.
- Eat healthy foods, such as whole, unprocessed foods, vegetables, and fruit. Eat small amounts throughout the day. Reduce the amount of processed and junk foods you eat. Stay hydrated.
- Take good care of yourself. Make sure you have a daily routine that includes time for you to relax and rest. Try to follow a routine sleep pattern. Exercise to increase your energy and reduce stress.
- Participate in different stress-reducing activities. In addition to exercise, there are many other activities that reduce stress, such as meditation, creative arts, deep breathing, spending time in nature, or practicing mindfulness.
- Be good to yourself. Take time to do the things you enjoy. Care for your spiritual self. Treat yourself gently with understanding and patience. Give yourself the time you need to heal.
Being aware of post-acute withdrawal syndrome and having effective coping strategies when symptoms flare up will help you safeguard your sobriety.
Do You Need Help?
Addiction is a disease that can affect anyone. If you or a loved one struggles with drug or alcohol addiction, you are not alone. Help is available. Call and speak to a caring professional at Anabranch Recovery Center located in Terre Haute, Indiana. We will answer your questions and help you on your journey on the path to recovery. Now is the time to take the first step towards living a sober life.
About the Author:
Terry Hurley is a retired educational professional and freelance writer with more than fifty years of experience. A former reading specialist and learning center director, Terry loved her years working with children in the educational field. She has written extensively for print and online publications specializing in education and health issues. For the last six years, her writing focus has been on addiction and mental health issues.