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Drug Cravings Increase during First Few Months of Abstinence

Drug addiction has been a social concern for a variety of reasons. People who develop an addiction to drugs are at increased risk for negative physical health problems and risk taking that can put them in harm’s way. They are more likely to engage in sexual risk taking and violent activities. These situations can lead to incarceration, sexually transmitted diseases, unintended pregnancy, and dangerous sexual encounters. Additionally, individuals who are addicted to drugs tend to be more impulsive than those who are not, and can make poor decisions with respect to their health. All of these conditions make abstaining from drugs more difficult for those with addictions.

The best way to improve drug addiction treatment is to better understand the emotional, behavioral, and psychological processes that occur during drug abstinence. Relapse is common for those with drug addiction, especially those who have a history of heroin or methamphetamine dependence.

To gain more insight into the processes that occur during recovery, Guibin Wang of the National Institute on Drug Dependence at Peking University in China recently led a study on 183 individuals in an addiction treatment center. The participants’ drug-free times ranged from six days to over a year. Wang assessed the participants for anxiety, depression, and impulsivity and also measured their cravings for meth with and without meth cues.

The results revealed that the longer the participants were drug free, the fewer symptoms of anxiety or depression they had. Length of abstinence was also directly positively related to improved decision making and decreased impulsivity. However, although general cravings decreased relative to length of abstinence, cue-related cravings increased during the first three months for the majority of participants.

“So the present study suggested that the risk for relapse may increase with an increased length of abstinence up to 3 months,” said Wang. But, cue cravings decreased after six months and declined even further after a year of abstinence. This finding is clinically significant and should prompt clinicians and interventionists to be mindful of increased cue cravings and relapse risk during the initial stage of abstinence. Professionals should take steps to help individuals fighting addiction from meth and other substances strengthen emotional regulation and reduce stress during the critical first several months of recovery.

Wang, G., Shi, J., Chen, N., Xu, L., Li, J., et al. (2013). Effects of length of abstinence on decision-making and craving in methamphetamine abusers. PLoS ONE 8(7): e68791. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0068791

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  • sylvia

    August 9th, 2013 at 11:11 AM

    I don’t know that this is the same thing but I am an ex smoker who hasn’t had a cigarette in at least 10 years. But there is still something about going out to dinner or drinks with friends that is that social cue for me to have a smoke and sometimes I just want to die I want one so bad even though it has been a decade since the last time I had one! I think that when I first stopped smoking it was even easier than it is now to say no because I was so gung ho about quitting. And even now that this is my new life and my nee reality there are still times that there is nothing that would calm my nerves more or that would be better after dinner than a cigarette.

  • steven

    August 11th, 2013 at 11:34 PM

    hardest when the memories and effects are fresh no an ex user of substances I can attest to this.but I guess it does involve you will power and the desire to change and turn things around that can all stop you from or push you back to substances.I would never go back to it but the first few months were really the toughest.

  • Jerry

    August 12th, 2013 at 10:01 AM

    I would think that each day away from the behavior would make things a little easier. But i can also see that the longer you are away from it you might get a little more confident and think that you can handle those triggers when in actuality, for any addict the triggers are almost always going to be there, it’s just a matter of how strong you are at a particualr moment in time to look the other way.

  • vic

    August 13th, 2013 at 4:30 AM

    absolutely critical to have a strong support system in place during this time

  • Mark Dempster Addiction Counselling

    August 13th, 2013 at 4:59 AM

    Impressive how it overlaps with Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous keytags and coins, counting up to 90 days clean. They must have had the same feeling that each day of the first three months in beating addiction is very important to focus on.

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