Withdrawal from substance abuse wreaks havoc on both the body and the mind. While it is part of the journey, it can, unfortunately, harm the person going through it, as the symptoms of withdrawal are enough to cause depression. Like most depressive cycles, this one is self-perpetuating and must be broken to begin healing.
Step one is to identify the cycle of negativity, step two is to break it, and step three is to set a positive cycle in motion. The problem is, most people in recovery don’t identify that they are in a state of depression because they attribute all of the negative feelings to the withdrawal. To aid this, we’re going to be looking at why withdrawal can cause depression, what the symptoms are, and how to implement positive coping strategies into your life.
Why does withdrawal cause depression?
Current theories of addiction may differ in some ways, but one thing they can all agree on is the involvement of the brain’s reward pathway and the release of dopamine. The “reward circuit” is designed to teach us new, positive behaviours by releasing a happy hormone when we do something beneficial. This could be eating when we are hungry, sleeping when we are tired, or drinking when we are thirsty.
Taking drugs or alcohol releases dopamine as well, lighting up the reward circuit by virtue of its chemical properties, chemically inducing a sense of happiness. However, over time and the more we consume, we have to take more and more of the same kind of drug to elicit that happy feeling. This is because of our brain’s desensitisation to dopamine. In plain English, it needs more of the happy hormone than before to actually make us feel good. Our happy threshold rises, and substance intake starts to feel like a necessity.
Once you start on your path to recovery from substance dependency, your brain is no longer receiving large doses of dopamine. The small ones you naturally produce are virtually undetectable, and that can leave you in a haze of negativity. This is supplemented by a variety of life factors like potentially degrading relationships, financial trouble, and poor physical health (all resulting from the addiction).
The result? Depression.
Signs and Symptoms of Depression
Most people think that depression means constantly feeling sad, deep feelings of hopelessness, and even suicidality. While these can all be a part of someone’s experience with depression, they are not the only (or even primary) symptoms.
Each depressive experience is different, so it’s difficult to pin down a definitive list. That said, the biggest symptom to look out for is a loss of interest in doing anything you previously enjoyed. Reading, running, re-watching your favourite TV show; no matter what it is, losing that interest signifies a disconnection with your life. There are some others listed below:
- Cyclical thoughts that work to keep you in the space of negativity, e.g. “I deserve this”, “it’s not worth trying to get better anyway”.
- A feeling of numbness or dissociation from reality.
- Persistent sadness or feelings of hopelessness, feeling small.
- Short temper, irritability, changes in mood patterns.
- Insomnia, nausea, and loss of appetite.
Implementing systems to cope with withdrawal depression
Dealing with depression is, once again, unique to the person experiencing it. With the added dimension of withdrawal, there are different considerations in play, and tackling them alongside the depression is key.
Establish a support system
No man is an island. If you’re dealing with issues surrounding your mental health, one of the best things you can do is gather the people you care about to your side. Let them know what you’re struggling with, and make it clear what you need. A shoulder to lean on, a friend to keep you company over the phone in the dark, or someone to sit with you on a bad day.
Choose your people well, as triggers for substance abuse can come in the form of people who encourage you to make negative choices. Create a positive recovery environment for yourself.
Be aware of negative cycles of thought
This begins with identifying the cycles your mind can spiral into, whether they be addictive or depressive. Thoughts that encourage the perpetuation of a negative state are clever. They’re there to protect the depressive state and feed it. Noticing what they are doing is how you take away their power.
Just keep a gentle, non-judgmental eye on yourself. Upon noticing any negative cycles of thought, do something disruptive for it. Say something kind to yourself, do something fun for you, or even just seek out a positive presence in the form of a friend or family member. Above all, treat yourself with kindness and compassion as you would a friend.
Be honest with yourself
If you’re sliding backwards, if a friend is a potentially bad influence on your mental state, or if you’re building up walls to isolate yourself, notice. Be honest with yourself about it. That’s the only way to move forward.
Seek out a professional
Professionals are there because they have no agenda in your life apart from helping you recover. Someone educated in addiction, therapy and treating depression can help you to establish systems in your life, as well as provide you with a knowledgeable soundboard.
It’s understandable to worry about engaging a professional, but at the end of the day, it’s an investment in your own recovery.