Module 6: how drugs work: facilitator's guide

10.1 Withdrawal symptoms and the rebound effect

Page last updated: 2004

Withdrawal symptoms
Case study - withdrawal
Specific drug withdrawal symptoms
Rebound effect

Withdrawal symptoms

Withdrawal from any drug is almost always an unpleasant experience. The person's body has developed a physical dependence and now needs the drug to function normally. However, many young people can successfully withdraw from alcohol or other drugs without formalised treatment such as hospitalisation or medication.

Withdrawal symptoms can occur when a person who has used a drug over a prolonged period of time reduces or stops using altogether.

Symptoms, severity and duration of withdrawal from a drug are difficult to predict.

However there are factors - apart from the amount and duration of the drug used - that can affect the severity and duration of withdrawal.

Even a substance as common as coffee can produce withdrawal symptoms in certain circumstances. If you are usually a heavy coffee drinker and then go away camping for a week (without taking coffee with you!) you might well experience headaches and other unpleasant symptoms which are the result of withdrawal from caffeine.

Withdrawal symptoms for most drugs last for less than two weeks.

Some drugs are likely to produce more severe withdrawal symptoms.

Case study - withdrawal


Branco used $100 heroin per day for four years and experienced quite mild withdrawal symptoms when he went through detoxification. He did not require medication or an in-patient stay. In comparison, Robbie had very severe withdrawal symptoms after ceasing a $50-a-day heroin habit which had continued over a six-month period.
Top of page


Tara and Rebecca had both been smoking five to ten cones of hydro cannabis (a more potent form than leaf) daily for about a year. As a New Year's resolution, the girls agreed to give up cannabis for at least a month. While Tara coped relatively well, and did not experience any serious withdrawal symptoms, Rebecca had ten days of 'hell' experiencing insomnia, depression, irritability, anxiety and sweating.

Task - writing exercise

Question - What are some reasons that might explain the differences in the withdrawal symptoms experienced by Branco and Robbie and Tara and Rebecca?


Overhead transparency

Some possible reasons for the differences in withdrawal might include:
  • expectation of what withdrawal will be like. If someone expects to have a very severe withdrawal, it is more likely they will have one.

  • general physical health - A person who is less healthy is more likely to experience serious withdrawal symptoms.

  • general psychological health - Someone prone to anxiety or depression is more likely to experience serious withdrawal symptoms.

  • social supports that the person is able to rely upon.

Specific drug withdrawal symptoms

Task - writing exercise

Withdrawal symptoms for most drugs last for less than two weeks and there are general guidelines for the effects of withdrawal. Write down the usual withdrawal symptoms for the list of drugs below using the resources in Topic 7.
  • Alcohol (high health risk of withdrawal)
  • Benzodiazepines (high health risk of withdrawal)
  • Heroin (moderate health risk of withdrawal)
  • Petrol (moderate health risk of withdrawal)
  • Cannabis (low health risk of withdrawal)
  • Amphetamines (low health risk of withdrawal)
  • Ecstasy (low health risk of withdrawal)
  • Nicotine (low health risk of withdrawal)
Top of page

Rebound effect

Rebound effect is an interesting phenomenon in which the withdrawal effects are often opposite to the effect of the drug that had been used.

For example, people in heroin withdrawal often feel restless, depressed, sensitive to pain, and have diarrhoea. All of these effects are exactly opposite to the effects of heroin intoxication.

Task - writing exercise

Using drug information sheets (e.g. ADF or CEIDA resources), write down the effects of intoxication and rebound effects for the drugs listed below. The first one is completed as an example.
  • Heroin:
    • effects of intoxication: euphoria (feeling very happy); relaxed; no sensation of pain; constipation; pupils constricted ('pinned')
    • rebound effects: depressed; restless; sensitive to pain; diarrhoea; pupils dilated (large)
  • Petrol
  • Amphetamines (speed)
  • Alcohol