Our understanding of how psychoactive substances affect us has been largely based on researching their intoxicating effects. But what about the after effects? I’m talking about the comedowns, the hangovers, the withdrawals. This might be a more important research focus, to better understand the nature of addiction and what drives individuals to use substances problematically.

We need to talk about comedowns.

Our knowledge of the intoxicating effects drugs have is pretty thorough. We know what most recreational drugs do to our brain, how substances stimulate, depress and interact with various neurotransmitters. Although there is always further research to be done, especially on less well known drugs, what happens when you are high is fairly well researched. We also understand what makes a drug addictive and desirable.

On the other hand, we know very little about the next-day effects of drugs. It is very important that this topic gets more research focus and funding, to be understood in greater detail. 

It isn’t just the pleasurable effects experienced that draw us to psychoactive drugs, but unpleasant comedowns and painful withdrawals which also play a role. Could this perhaps be more vital and key to unlocking why some develop a problematic relationship to a drug and others do not? I think it could be.

Anecdotally speaking, comedowns appear to be a lot more varied in how they manifest. There seem to be many more individual differences at play compared to the intoxicating element of drugs.

When the intoxicating effects of a drug wear off, with it may come some of the most interesting aspects to addiction.

The effects experienced the day after consuming a drug could be a better indicator for why individuals develop a problematic relationship with a drug.

With a lot we still don’t know about comedowns, there are currently more questions than answers.

Does a harsh comedown create a higher or lower addiction potential for a drug? For example, somebody who is on a crash may wish to bring themselves back up. Conversely, a harsh comedown experience may dissuade someone from using that drug again, or regularly. And with that logic, is it possible that drugs with little or no comedown have a higher addiction potential?

The answer to all of this, is that we really don’t know. We aren’t even too sure about the answer to these in regards to the alcohol hangover. The field of drug comedowns is not only interesting but worthwhile understanding. It is also a field which is a lot less straightforward and complicated to answer compared to the intoxicating effects of drugs.

Studying the effects of drugs in a controlled laboratory setting gives us some findings to go on, but doesn’t tell us a whole lot about the effects drugs have in the real world – these studies don’t give us the full picture and aren’t representative of how individuals consume drugs regularly.

Understanding how drugs interact with us in a ‘normal’ setting is difficult from a research perspective. We often have to rely on retrospective reports or observational studies, which holds various limitations – these methods are biased and make it impossible to draw causal conclusions. In particular, the fact that polydrug use is very common during comedowns further muddies the waters for researchers.

So why haven’t we researched comedowns more? There are lots of hurdles to conducting this research. It is a lot more difficult to get someone to agree to come in to conduct a study when they are experiencing a comedown, compared to if they will be administered the drug. A way of getting around this is to administer a drug and keep the participant until they begin experiencing a comedown; of course this doesn’t mimic the reality of comedowns and how they are experienced in the real world. It is important to remember that there is always a trade off with scientific research – a more accurate understanding of one aspect, inevitably means another is limited.

We are complex beings and addiction is complex – simplifying these behaviours to a lab experiment is problematic. If comedowns are linked to addiction, it is crucial that we study the mechanism in order that we can better understand root causes and come up with creative solutions to understanding root causes and best courses of action to effectively treat it. 

Why? Because we continue to see addiction and drug deaths are rising in the western world. This is a clear indication that this is a consequence of a society which is ridden with mental illness, at no individual fault of their own – an inherent problem with society rather than the drug user. Our pursuit to alter our consciousness continues to grow – perhaps in order to effectively treat addiction we must change the way we approach the problem.

If we better understand how, why and what contributes to comedowns, we can reduce the harm which they cause to drug users.

Katya Kowalski is Stakeholder Engagement Officer at Volteface. Tweets @KowalskiKatya

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