For most people addicted to drugs or alcohol, the compulsive desire to use is complex. That urge is often triggered by certain environments, thoughts or past experiences. And while addiction is classically thought of as a physical dependence, the psychological dependence can be just as prevalent and is often more difficult to treat.
The Science of Mental Addiction
Physical dependence is when one becomes so dependent on a drug that their cells actually require it. If the body doesn’t receive it, withdrawal effects can take place that include nausea, headaches or restlessness.
Many addicts looking to get clean will go through a detox process to lessen the withdrawal symptoms. This is usually done under medical supervision and lasts about a week, allowing drug use to be gradually tapered. While the taper relieves some physical symptoms, it does nothing for an addict’s state of mind.
A psychological dependence is loosely described by the DEA as “a compulsion that keeps drawing you back to something.” Positive feelings of happiness, euphoria or sexual stimulation naturally make the user want to experience those emotions time and again, so they continually pursue them—despite the heavy cost. Addicts can easily lose everything that once held meaning in their lives including work, friends and relationships.
Attacking the Problem
Because detox doesn’t cure mental cravings for the drug, a medically supervised rehab program is the best course of action for lasting sobriety. Skills and coping techniques acquired while in rehab help addicts learn to curb and deny the mental desires to use again.
Even with proper medical care, many addicts experience post-acute withdrawal syndrome, also known as protracted withdrawal syndrome or PAWS. Symptoms of PAWS can last for several months and include mood swings, insomnia, extreme drug cravings, obsession, anxiety or panic attacks, depression and suicidal tendencies.
The treatment for PAWS can also include medications like acamprosate, naltrexone, Suboxone, or methadone. Medical specialists may also prescribe antidepressants if symptoms of depression are present for more than one month. Exercise in the form of meditation, yoga or aerobic workouts can also help with the depressive symptoms classically associated with PAWS.
Related Reading: Understanding the Effects of Long Term Drug Abuse on the Brain