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What you Will Experience with Post Acute Withdrawal Syndrome

Have you ever wondered why, even after some sober time, you still have a hard time feeling comfortable at life? It could feel like you’re on an emotional roller coaster, or like you can never really remember stuff, or you can just feel really clumsy.

For a lot of us, getting sober doesn’t mean that we are going to be right as rain as soon as we get out of treatment. Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome is a very real, and very common side effect of getting sober.

It is actually so common, that the question you ask yourself shouldn’t be, “Do I have Post Acute Withdrawal?” but rather, “Which symptoms of Post Acute Withdrawal Syndrome am I experiencing?”

Better get Comfortable

Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome, or PAWS for short, happens to just about every single person who gets clean and sober from drugs and alcohol. While everyone experiences it, many people can have different reactions and severity of their PAWS symptoms.

Usually starting anywhere from a few days to a few weeks after the initial detoxification process, comes Post Acute Withdrawal Syndrome. This is usually the more emotional and mental side effects rather than physical ones.

It occurs when the natural brain chemistry is slowly restoring itself back to normal after any length of repeated and frequent drug or alcohol abuse. Depending on the length and severity of use, this can often last from anywhere between 3 months to 2 years to fully return back to normal!

If you are not sure what to look out for, here are some of the main symptoms of Post Acute Withdrawal Syndrome:

  • Mood Swings
  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Fatigue
  • Abnormal Sleep Patterns
  • Difficulty Concentrating
  • Difficulty with Memory
  • Energy Swings
  • Lack of Coordination
  • Depression

As if the first few months to a year of sobriety weren’t hard enough, adding Post Acute Withdrawal Syndrome into the mix can definitely spice things up a bit more. However, it is comforting to know that much of the reason WHY early sobriety can be so stressful, is simply because of PAWS.

In the very early days of detox and treatment, many people will opt for medications to help ease their withdrawal pain and symptoms. However, for the people who struggle severely with post acute withdrawal symptoms, there are nonaddictive medications that many people find can be helpful when dealing with the mood swings, anxiety, and depression that can occur during the first year of sobriety.

For those who don’t already struggle with mental disorders, the symptoms of PAWS can largely go unmedicated. It is pretty much guaranteed that after the initial post-acute withdrawal symptoms fade away, the person’s mood, energy levels, and mental function will go back to normal.

Sometimes Quickly, Sometimes Slowly

Simply knowing and having a name for all of the extra sober side effects we are experiencing, can often make the whole process a lot easier. Which is why understanding and identifying Post Acute Withdrawal Syndrome can really save a lot of people in the first few months of sobriety.

It is really important for us to be gentle with ourselves, and others, in our first few months. It can be pretty hard to deal with other humans sometimes, especially if we are living in halfway, or have moved back in with our parents. We can often find that we flip-flop to and from emotions at the drop of a hat, and even doing just a few activities during the day can feel like a huge undertaking. This is all symptoms of Post Acute Withdrawal Syndrome, and it is ENTIRELY NORMAL.

It is also important to remember, that depending on what you did and how much, you might be experiencing pretty severe PAWS, as can someone else. Everyone does different drugs and different amounts and has different lifestyles while they used, so some people can take a little longer to get back to normal than others can. So be gentle with yourself and others!

Relapse from PAWS

Unfortunately, a lot of people find that the side effects from PAWS can lead to a relapse if they go unattended. A lot of the mood swings and physical side effects can be really trying, and they can often lead people into romanticizing drugs and alcohol.

I work in the treatment field, and I have heard many newcomers say, “I hate feeling these feelings, it was easier when I was getting high and didn’t have to feel anything”. However, when I explain PAWS to them, things sort of click, and they are able to focus on their program again.

It is actually pretty common for people to think that the 12 steps don’t work because they still don’t feel “perfect”. People can fall into cycles where they experience a heavy build-up of life and PAWS, which can be a make it or break it period for a lot of newcomers.

However, a lot of these stress build-ups can actually enhance or be enhanced by the symptoms of PAWS, and usually come from other, outside issues, such as:

  • Problems with Family
  • Getting into Relationships
  • Financial Stress
  • Looking for/ Maintaining a Job
  • Poor Sleep and Diet Habits
  • Dealing with the repercussions of our active addictions (paying tickets, appearing in court, being on probation, etc.)

There is comfort in knowing that we all go through these stages, and they are completely normal. After a while, everything starts to level out and our Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome will begin to fade away.

How To Push Through PAWS

When everything feels like it is just building up around us, or that we have been given too much to handle, there are a lot of simple little ways to make sure that we can stay level-headed, despite our Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome. They may sound a little too easy to work, but PAWS is a real medical syndrome, and there has been research done on real counteractive ways to work through it, such as:

    • Healthy Sleep Habits: Sleep is so important for us, our brains are like little baby brains again when we get sober. We have to nurture them!
      • Staying up until 2 am every night binge watching Netflix and sleeping in until noon is things we did in active addiction.
      • Going to bed at a reasonable hour and getting anywhere from 6-9 hours of sleep (depending on what your body needs) are crucial for being able to handle the next day.
    • Balanced Diet: It is really easy for a lot of us to continue our poor eating habits even after we get sober. A lot of people find that they crave carbs and sugary foods in early recovery, and this is part of the brain looking for those immediate reward systems after we have removed drugs and alcohol from the picture.
      • I’m not saying go on a crazy strict or vegan diet (unless you want to!) but try to make sure you are keeping a healthy balance of meat, veggies, legumes, and fruit.
      • Healthy eating has been proven to be beneficial for a smoother recovery because it keeps blood flow and circulation working properly, as well as smoothing out any digestive flows that might still be blocked up.
    • Working a Program: Whether you choose a 12 step program or a meditative practice or with a church group, the main goal here is to continue learning about WHY we are the way we are, and how we can live normal positive lives.
      • No matter how you feel, keep going to meetings, keep calling your sponsor, and keep reaching out to the newcomer.
      • If you do find that PAWS has got you in a downward spiral, your program and the people in it will carry you through the dark time.
    • Exercise: Studies show that exercising regularly can regulate sleep patterns, boost endorphins (which makes you happy!), increases blood flow, and can reduce chronic pain.
      • Whether it be going to the gym, swimming, hiking, biking, kickboxing, yoga, walking, or pole dancing, do whatever you need to do to get your body moving.
      • “They,” say that it takes 21 days for an activity to become a habit, so if you can stick it out for the first few weeks, chances are it will become second nature and something you look forward to doing every day.
    • Healthy Safe Care: This is something that a lot of us forget to do. When the days become stressful, or when we find that we are running around, from work to meetings to exercise to fellowship, it is important that we allow ourselves some healthy quiet time to unwind.
      • Some people enjoy a quiet night in, with a nice meal and a book or Netflix.
      • Others find that taking a few minutes to practice mindful breathing is enough, and others need a whole day of relaxing.
      • It is important to allow our brains and bodies the time they need to unwind, especially if we find that we aren’t getting enough sleep, or if we are snapping at people or situations. When we are unusually perturbed, it often means we are missing something in our own lives. Take the time to find out what you need, and do it!

The Bottom Line

Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome is very real, and everyone who gets sober experiences it. It can be different for every person, and it does not last forever. So if you are experiencing symptoms of PAWS, remember that it is only temporary, and then do something to get out of it! You are in control of your emotions today, and you have the tools you need to live a healthy, sober life.