Quitting Drugs on Your Own?: The Dangers of Going Cold-Turkey

what happens when you quit drugs

You’ve had enough of your drug use. Maybe you have hit your end line, your rock bottom, or realized the consequences are not worth the high. Perhaps you’ve come to see that your drug problem is hurting your family, or that the drugs are destroying yourself. Whatever your reason is, you have come to the conclusion that you want to quit now. You want to quit fast. You want this to be over.

If there is one thing that we’ve learned about recovery from addiction, it’s that it takes time, patience, and commitment. It also takes a lot of strength to push through. Drug abuse causes chemical changes in your brain, and addiction can leave your system in shock. Recovering from the effects of substance abuse, therefore, is often associated with a period of pain or distress. This is the withdrawal stage, one of the most challenging aspects of the recovery process. Withdrawal is often intense, and it can last for days, weeks, or even months. It should never be tackled alone.

Before attempting to quit drugs on your own, take time to understand the risks. Going “cold turkey” without medical supervision is not only difficult, but severely unsafe. The challenges and the dangers should outweigh your desire to rush the process. Recovery is a journey—there are no shortcuts.

The Difficulty:

If you have been using drugs regularly for some time now, the abuse has more than likely begun to take a toll on your brain. Drug addiction alters the chemical composition of the brain, actually changing the way your brain functions and behaves. It re-wires the parts of the brain dedicated to memory, decision-making, and self-control. While you may feel as though you have complete control over stopping drugs, the truth is, the drugs more than likely have control over you. This is one of the biggest challenges you can face with quitting drugs on your own.

The other difficulty of coming off drugs alone lies in the stability of your environment. If you are still surrounded by friends who use or drink regularly, there is a higher chance of relapse. Oftentimes, constant relapse triggers, such as social pressures and old using environments, can drive one back to drug use. Sinking into an emotional or unstable mental state can also make it hard to maintain control. 

The Danger:

Whether you are psychologically or physically dependent or both, coming off hard drugs should not be done without expert, medical help. Whether you abuse cocaine, prescription drugs, or suffer from a heroin addiction, there is great likelihood that an excruciating withdrawal stage will follow.

Prolonged use of opiates, for example, is usually followed by constant restlessness, pain throughout the entire body, insomnia, vomiting, and repeated hot/cold sweats. Heroin withdrawal symptoms typically arise within 12 hours after stopping use. Withdrawal from stimulants like cocaine can cause a spike in blood pressure, chronic muscle tension, depression, and insomnia. The list goes on, and in some cases, can result in death.

Withdrawal most commonly becomes life-threatening when a user goes “cold turkey” after prolonged benzodiazepine abuse.  Xanax, Klonopin, and Valium are brand-name benzos that doctors often prescribe.  Suddenly quitting these drugs without medical supervision can cause seizures, convulsions, and the eventual shutdown of the central nervous system.

Quitting pain medications without proper opiate addiction treatment can quickly lead to withdrawal complications, like dehydration. The dangers can be extreme. Without proper treatment, a person going cold turkey is more likely to relapse. Quitting cold turkey also means that one’s tolerance to drugs will lessened. Taking a once “normal” dose after stopping use for several days can result in a fatal overdose.

Unfortunately, there is no true way to predict how your body will react to quitting drugs. There is also no true way to predict how you will act in the face of withdrawal symptoms. Will you be able to handle the negative side effects on your own? Will you alleviate them through additional drug use? Or will you seek out professional treatment to help push you through?

The Best Fix:

While you may want the quickest fix, you also want the fix that is most beneficial to your health, life and future. The best and safest way to quit drugs, therefore, is under medical supervision in concurrence with a long-term addiction treatment plan.

Your body becomes stressed after prolonged drug use. It needs the proper nourishment, rehydration, and restoration in order to reach full recovery. This process, unfortunately, does not happen overnight. It takes time to regain your strength (in mind and body) and to relearn healthy habits. It also takes a supportive, comfortable environment to maintain your commitment to sobriety. For this reason, long-term drug treatment programs are extremely beneficial to the entire recovery process, as well as a long-lasting, drug-free lifestyle.