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  • Writer's pictureDonna Hunter

Understanding Alcohol Withdrawal: What Happens When You Quit Drinking


A woman sitting by the window worried about alcohol withdrawal


Even starting to think about quitting alcohol is a great deal. You are about to start living a healthier life where you are in control and are able to live without depending on a substance. Now is the right time to learn the reasons why you drink and what happens when you quit drinking. The truth is, you might go through severe withdrawal symptoms. However, this is not in any sense something that should discourage you. You should know what awaits you to prepare and recover from alcoholism successfully. You will be anxious and uncomfortable in the beginning, but you will get a free, happier life in return.

 

Why Do People Drink?

Before you can begin your recovery journey, you should understand what made you start drinking in the first place. Because identifying and dealing with those underlying issues is the first step to successful recovery. 


Some of the main reasons why people drink alcohol include social, personal, and external factors. Here’s an example to help you understand this better. You might’ve started drinking because it made you more sociable in uncomfortable situations. Later, you might’ve used alcohol to cope with a bad breakup. Finally, the COVID-19 pandemic hit and you leaned on alcohol to suppress the feelings of loneliness and isolation. All these factors made you rely on alcohol more and more and resulted in an addiction. But now it’s the time to take your life back and find healthier coping strategies.

 

What is Alcohol Withdrawal?

When you drink a lot and often, over time, your body and your brain get used to alcohol. You need to go on consuming alcohol for them to work properly.


When you stop all of a sudden, it doesn’t go without a reaction. This is how alcohol withdrawal comes about. Now that you don’t drink anymore, your brain needs time to start functioning without alcohol.


How does this all happen? First of all, there is a neurotransmitter called GABA. It makes you feel relaxed and less anxious. There is another neurotransmitter you should know about, called glutamate. Glutamate makes you feel less excited and have less energy. When your brain stops getting alcohol, it has too little GABA and too much glutamate, which leads to withdrawal symptoms.


Your body also gets affected when you stop drinking. Your liver, heart, and digestive system work to process and eliminate alcohol. When you quit, they need time to get back to functioning normally, and that is another reason you will go through uncomfortable symptoms of withdrawal.


What Happens When You Quit Drinking

Understanding what happens when you quit drinking is important, but it is equally important to understand that withdrawal symptoms vary from one person to another.


In the beginning, 6-12 hours after the last drink, you might feel:

  • Anxiety

  • Nausea

  • Insomnia

  • Sweating


There are things you can do to reduce these symptoms. You need to stay hydrated and eat balanced meals. Working out will help you, too. Physical exercise is good for your mental health and will reduce your anxiety and help you sleep better.


During 12-48 hours after the last drink, the symptoms usually become stronger. You might experience:

  • Increased heart rate

  • High blood pressure

  • Fever

  • Confusion


While you can manage mild symptoms on your own, at this point you will need medical supervision to be safe and avoid complications. A doctor will give you medications to help you feel more at ease. 


48-72 hours after you quit drinking, you might get severe symptoms. They include:

  • Hallucinations

  • Seizures

  • Delirium tremens (DTs)


These symptoms are serious, and you need to be in a hospital while you are dealing with them. You need intensive care as these symptoms can be dangerous: without proper treatment, delirium tremens can have a mortality rate as high as 37%. At the hospital, you will get intravenous fluids and medications and doctors will monitor your health at all times.

 

Complications of Alcohol Withdrawal


Alcohol withdrawal symptoms might cause further complications. They may:

  • Cause risk to your health

  • Create an imbalance of minerals

  • Affect your heart

  • Cause mental health problems


There are factors that make you more likely to face severe withdrawal symptoms or complications. You are at greater risk if you have:

  • A heavy drinking history

  • Gone through withdrawal episodes before

  • Underlying health conditions

  • No medical supervision

  • Lack of support from your loved ones


Treatment Options for Alcohol Withdrawal


To avoid complications of alcohol withdrawal, you need professional help. Explore the following services:

  1. Medical detoxification

  2. Outpatient and inpatient treatment

  3. Supportive care


Medical Detoxification


Many things can go wrong when you stop drinking. When you do it on your own, the risks are greater. Therefore, you need a supervised detox, where medical professionals will give you care, monitor your condition, and make sure you are comfortable.


Outpatient vs. Inpatient Treatment


If you need to stay at home and not disrupt your everyday life, outpatient treatment is for you. You will have more flexibility during outpatient treatment, and you will be able to work or attend your classes. If you have support at home, this is a great choice for you. However, you won’t have constant medical supervision, which might be risky for your health, and you will be exposed to triggers and temptations that might make you get a drink.


On the other hand, in inpatient treatment, you get care at all times. Plus, you will be far away from triggers, and stay in a controlled environment. Of course, this also means that you will be away from your family and won’t be able to work or study.


Supportive Care


You can get psychological support through counseling and therapy. Talking to a therapist will help you understand what it is that led you to drink in the first place and what the underlying problems are.


There are people out there who go through the same trials as you. They get you, and knowing this will give you inspiration. Join groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, and become a part of the community to share experiences and meet people who might become your role models and motivate you to live an alcohol-free life.


Besides these groups, your friends and family will support you in recovery. They will encourage and keep you accountable. There will be times when you will need strong emotional support and your loved ones will make these times bearable.


Quit Drinking and Take Control of Your Life


Withdrawal symptoms are only a small part of what happens when you quit drinking. Yes, they might be tough to deal with, but what comes after is worth it. First of all, you will have more energy, you will feel better and healthier. You will start thinking clearly and be more focused. Your relationships will be intact again, and your financial situation will improve. Alcohol might have kept you from achieving your goals, but when you recover, you will be able to accomplish everything you want and live the life you wished for.

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