Coming off drugs

Quitting drugs isn't always a picnic. Here's your guide to cleaning up safely - whatever drug you're dependent on.

Girl looking ill on sofa

How rubbish you feel will depend on the drugs you've been taking

Is it only hard if a drug is physically addictive?

It’s easy to think that only physically addictive drugs, such as heroin, are difficult to stop using, but your mind can get hooked on so much more. The fact is it’s possible to develop a degree of psychological dependency to almost anything you do on a regular basis that helps you feel good or stops you from feeling bad.

How quickly can I quit?

Much depends on the nature of the drug, your habit, and the kind of person you are. With many substances, you can claim to be drug-free just as soon as you stop taking them, even if there are mental cravings to come; while others require a supervised withdrawal programme to be sure your body can cope. Ultimately, if a drug has played an important role in your life then it can take time to learn how to manage without it – even a lifetime in some cases.

How can I quit when all my friends are taking drugs?

Maybe you don’t consider yourself an addict, but just fancy easing up on your recreational drink or drug intake. You may not have any significant withdrawal symptoms to speak of, but it can still be tough to keep a straight head when everyone else is busy losing theirs. Here are three steps to help you to break free. It will take a while, but you’ll get there with commitment.

1. Reinvent your routine If you’re used to dancing with saucer eyes most Saturdays then it might be wise to avoid clubbing for a while. It doesn’t have to be forever, just long enough for you to get back in touch with having a good time on your own terms.

2. Tell your friends There’s no shame in wanting to straighten out, either for a temporary period or permanently. So let your mates know beforehand. That way, they’re less likely to wave temptation under your nose at a time when you’re fighting not to give up on giving up.

3. Fill your time Avoiding temptation is one thing, but that doesn’t amount to much if you’re left with nothing to do but stare at the telly. So be creative with your time, and do things your habit would’ve otherwise prevented – like driving a car or talking sense.

Quitting cannabis

Quitting cannabis won’t result in physical withdrawal symptoms, unlike the nicotine in tobacco if you smoke it in a spliff. Some long-term users do report psychological problems when it comes to being weed-free. This can range from difficulties in coping with social situations to sleep problems and heightened anxiety.

The way forward: If you’re trying to quit but finding it tough, consider packing in cigarettes first (if you’re a smoker). If you’re not, aim to recognise that nicotine could be the reason you’re so quick to roll a spliff. Either way, there are plenty of stopping strategies on hand to help snuff out the tobacco hand. For practical tips, check out this factsheet on kicking the tobacco habit. It can take time to quit cannabis if you’re used to being stoned in social situations, so you may find it helps to review your lifestyle for a period of time.

More help:¬†Have a look at the NHS’ Smokefree service for help, support and info to stop smoking.

Cocaine and crack

Regular use of cocaine can lead to the development of strong psychological dependency problems. It means a habit can develop that’s hard to kick. Stopping can cause intense withdrawal symptoms, such as exhaustion, anxiety and paranoia, and may require professional help.

The way forward: A drug counselling programme is often effective in helping cocaine users break free, combined with practical strategies for coping without resorting to a hit.

More help: Addaction helps individuals and communities manage the effects of drug and alcohol misuse.

Amphetamines (speed)

Speed is a stimulant drug. It means you’re likely to feel washed out for a day or so after recreational use. Long-term users can become psychologically dependent on the buzz speed gives them, which may make withdrawal a challenge. Symptoms include tiredness and exhaustion, depression, anxiety and sleep problems.

The way forward:¬†If you’re concerned about coming off amphetamines, seek advice from your doctor or a trained drug counsellor.

More help: Addaction helps individuals and communities manage the effects of drug and alcohol misuse.


Recreational use of MDMA can leave some people feeling washed out for a day or so afterwards, but withdrawal symptoms are largely psychological.

The way forward: If you’re finding it hard to cut down or quit using ecstasy, a chat with your doctor or a drug counsellor can help to pinpoint why you feel the need to get pilled-up so regularly. Together, you can then develop strategies for overcoming the temptation – such as reinventing what your weekend is all about.

LSD (acid) and magic mushrooms

A regular hallucinogenic drug habit can have a serious impact on your psychological welfare. There’s no physical risk associated with cutting down or quitting an established habit, but your mind could find it hard to adjust back to reality.

The way forward: If you’re worried that acid has messed with your head, or you’re concerned about quitting, talk to a doctor or trained drug counsellor.

Quitting heroin

Heroin addiction doesn’t happen overnight, but if a habit develops it can take time and courage to escape. It’s a physically (and psychologically) addictive drug, which means your body grows to believe it needs a regular intake in order to function normally. As a result, withdrawing from heroin requires medical supervision to be sure that you can cope safely.

Generally, withdrawal symptoms begin 12 hours after quitting, and can include sweating, nausea, anxiety, vomiting, cramps, diarrhoea, chills and fever. This process is often known as cold turkey. It can be got through in seven to 10 days, and is often compared to a case of bad flu. Even so, the sense of emptiness reported by ex-users means relapse is often a risk for a long time afterwards.

The way forward: Heroin addiction can be overcome, no matter how daunting it seems. In helping a user to withdraw, a doctor (GP) may place them on a methadone programme. Methadone has similar properties to heroin, but is less addictive when taken in prescribed amounts. A withdrawal programme using methadone still has to be carefully controlled, but it can prove effective. Naltrexone implants can be used to block the effects of heroin as part of a treatment programme. They are not yet licensed in the UK but are available from private practitioners.

Users who withdraw from heroin for a period of time, only to resume the habit for whatever reason, should be aware that their tolerance to the drug may have decreased. This means that what might have been your ‘normal’ fix could now be more than your body can manage, leading to coma and even death.

More help: Addaction helps individuals and communities manage the effects of drug and alcohol misuse.

Next Steps

  • Addaction helps people recover from drug and alcohol addictions.
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Updated on 29-Sep-2015