The Physical Experience of Recovery From Addiction

By Robert Common, Managing Partner, The Beekeeper
The latest in a series on addiction

Since ancient times, healers have performed cleansing rituals for unwanted spirits. This is a tradition that spans many religions, but is particularly important in the practice of Buddhism.

The early physical experiences of recovery are closely related to this spiritual practice. In Western terminology, the initial physical state after removing a drug from the body is known as withdrawal. The wisdom of the ancient understanding of this experience can be combined with the insight of the modern view of it to provide an optimal route for healing and resetting the body during this critical time.

So what happens to the body when you stop using drugs? Science shows that many chemicals in the brain get produced by the experience of using drugs. One of the most well-known of these is called dopamine, and it is responsible for the experience of pleasure and reward that can make drugs so appealing. However, as the brain begins to get used to the presence of these drugs, less and less of this reward chemical is produced. This is known as tolerance, and it is an indicator of addiction. More drug is needed to achieve the same effect, and far more of the body’s distress signals get produced when the drug is not present. These distress signals are hormones called adrenaline and cortisol. They are the same hormones that get produced when you are frightened, in danger (even if you believe you are in danger without an obvious threat). These hormones are also active when you go through a trauma or experience something unpleasant.

During the initial stages of withdrawal, adrenaline and cortisol are produced in heavy amounts. The body is sending out distress calls, and it has come to believe that it is in a fight for its survival.

In a state of withdrawal, there is an unhealthy energy, and the body has knowledge that it must move away from this condition. The body’s input, like food, water, herbs and medicines, become even more critically important during this phase then they are during normal times.

Though the experience of withdrawal is common to many types of drug use, this energy state is most pronounced when a person uses opioids. Frequent use of opioids prevents the body from creating its own natural pain relief, and during the time when you have stopped using opioids, the body has not had enough time to resume producing these pain relievers. Western medicine understands these pain relievers to be endorphins, a combination word for endogenous (internal) morphine.

In the traditional view, this initial physical experience of recovery is often considered part of the process of restoration. Even though it is painful, it allows for balance, for a more sustainable forward and present path. Withdrawal, in its most acceptable form, can be considered as helping reduce an aspect of our lives that has caused us suffering. It gives us the opportunity to reflect on the consequences of our actions, and consider a different course.

Whether you understand the experience of early recovery through a traditional or modern viewpoint, the end experience is the same: you may find yourself after a few days achy, irritable, feverish, nauseated and generally feeling unwell. Even with the knowledge that this state of being is temporary, it can be rather unpleasant.

Many still tolerate the experience of withdrawal because they believe that doing so will help them become more enlightened, or more connected with the suffering of others. Others go through the experience of withdrawal because they believe they must be punished. Some are able to approach withdrawal with a sense of acceptance and openness, acknowledging their fears and the unpleasant reality of it.

The length and severity of withdrawal depend on several factors:

● the type of drug used

● how long it was used

● how often it was used

● how much was used

● individual health status

Both the length and the severity of withdrawal can be reduced with certain medications or certain herbs after assessment by a trained professional. In Western terminology, this is referred to as a “medical detoxification”, or “detox” for short. Detox is often necessary when a person has:

● been using a substance regularly in large amounts

● used a substance over an extended period

● experienced a smaller effect over time from using the same amount of a substance

● required increasing amounts of a substance to achieve the usual effect

● craved a substance regularly when there is no access to it

● tried to quit using a substance and found it difficult to do without help

As withdrawal subsides, the body and brain must restore their natural balances, which have often been highly disrupted. For many people, this is a period where energy is low, but irritability and tension in the body may be high. Soreness in bones and muscles is common, and so are fatigue, sweating and digestive disturbance. The majority of individuals in early recovery benefit from professional and community; community members and therapists must be patient, calm and empathetic during this time to provide helpful support.

Early recovery may not be easy on the body, but it offers a unique opportunity for restoration. If you are well informed about the body’s experience of withdrawal and the early recovery period, you are more likely to be able to utilize a mindful approach to this time. With mindfulness, early recovery becomes an experience that confers wisdom and a renewal for body and spirit.


Harris, I. C. (2008). Cambodian Buddhism: history and practice. University of Hawaii Press.

United States National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Understanding Drug Abuse and Addiction: What Science Says.” February 2016. Accessed August 20, 2020.

Sangkapreecha, P., & Sangkapreecha, T. (2013). The Cave of Healing: The Physical/Spiritual Detoxification and The Distinctive Healing Program for Drug Rehabilitation at Thamkrabok Monastery, Thailand. Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences Studies, 123-138.

National Center for Biotechnology Information. “Clinical Guidelines for Withdrawal Management and Treatment of Drug Dependence in Closed Settings.” 2009.

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