When you first stop smoking pot, doing drugs or drinking alcohol, you feel good about your decision. You are motivated and ready to make a change in your life. Even though you go back and forth in your mind, convincing yourself of reasons why you should stay sober, you know that quitting is the right thing to do. This keeps you from taking a toke, drink, or injection for the first few days.
But a couple of days into your sobriety when you hit day 6 or 7 (or maybe if you’re lucky, it starts around day 10 or 11 or 15), you get past the initial motivation and want to go back to the habits that made you feel like a normal person. You start to think about doing drugs again, but then beat yourself up over how horrible it is that you don’t have control over your addiction and your cravings. You wish so much that you weren’t addicted or that your drug of choice wasn’t bad for you. Even after only a few days of being clean, you know you have come so far, so then why do you feel depressed, irritable, and anxious?
If you step back a little further and look at drug addiction as a whole, the bigger question to ask yourself is:
- Why is it so hard to stay sober?
- Why do I feel so bad, so uneasy, and not like my normal self, even though I am stopping my destructive drug-using habits?
- Why does nothing I do seem to get me out of my depression?
Typically, the first few days of withdrawals from a drug are your physical body needing the chemicals the drug has been giving your body for so long. You get body aches, you’re cold, then hot, sweating, vomiting, sick to the stomach, etc. After you have gone through this physical withdrawal, then you really start to feel your brain withdrawing from the drug, which often comes out in psychologically “painful” ways like depression, anxiety, boredom, and irritability. This is because the chemicals in your brain that typically help you feel happy are off balance and/or are depleted.
How do drugs deplete your body of healthy “feel good” chemicals?
When you do drugs, you are flushing your brain with the chemicals of the drug. The drug stimulates different areas in your brain by sparking an unnatural rush of the principle chemical that makes you feel good - dopamine. Once you take the drug and it sparks the dopamine, the dopamine goes to the area of your brain that controls pleasure, warmth, feeling happy, etc., and the huge amount of dopamine stimulates and overwhelms the area, giving you the high.
Therefore, the drug is causing your brain to release its own supply of dopamine and to work in ways that it normally would not. Overtime, the rush of the drug’s chemicals causes your brain to become physically and biologically dependent on that rush. Wanting to continually do the drug comes from your brain because the brain needs the dopamine to become balanced. Based on what type of feelings the drug gives you, you also become psychologically dependent on drug because you don’t feel “normal” or happy without it. Being “addicted” to the drug is when you will do anything to get the drug, even if it means doing harm to your life or others’.
So, a drug sparks an unnatural rush of the feel good chemical, dopamine. My brain becomes dependent on that chemical because when I stop using the drug, my brain tells me that I need it and tortures me with cravings, pain, and depression when I don’t give it the drug. Why does this happen? Why can’t my brain make its own feel good chemicals?
The physiological/biological reason why you crave the drug is because the drug has dulled and desensitized the reward centers of your brain, and diminishes your body’s ability to make its own dopamine. Once you quit, it is possible for your brain to make dopamine again, but it takes awhile. Initially after quitting, no matter what you do, even when you do something that is supposed to make you feel happy, you may not. This is because your brain has not naturally produced enough dopamine to give you the response of happiness or, if it has, the drug has dulled the receptors in your brain that receive the chemical.
The best description I have heard of this process is by Dr. Nora Volkow, the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse and a top doctor and researcher of drug addicts’ brains. HBO did a documentary on addiction and has Dr. Volkow describe what happens to the brain when an addict stops taking drugs:
“We depend on our brain's ability to release dopamine in order to experience pleasure and to motivate our responses to the natural rewards of everyday life, such as the sight or smell of food. Drugs produce very large and rapid dopamine surges and the brain responds by reducing normal dopamine activity. Eventually, the disrupted dopamine system renders the addict incapable of feeling any pleasure even from the drugs they seek to feed their addiction.”
The documentary states, “With a deficit of naturally occurring dopamine comes an inability to feel pleasure except through drug use. This is a prime motivator of relapse.”
What this tells you about drug addiction is that because of drug use, you cannot simply stop quitting and do normal things that used to make you happy. But don’t feel hopeless!! While addiction is a chronic disease and a continual battle to fight to stay clean, there are activities and things that you can do to help you manage your cravings and give you the tools to get past depression, anxiety, and boredom.