In the long run, sobriety is one of the best decisions a heavy and compulsive drinker can make, brining many benefits and restoring health. However, in the short term, withdraw from alcohol addiction can often be difficult.
As your body tried to re-adapt to living without substance it has grown addicted to, there may be some temporary physical and psychological conditions that can often be difficult to deal with. However, by knowing what to expect ahead of time, you can learn to adapt and treat the withdrawal symptoms as they come up, and thus resist the temptation to end the symptoms by relapsing.
How withdraw from long-term heavy drinking alters your body
Many of alcohol's pleasant-feeling effects come about because it enhances the effect of GABA, a neurotransmitter that works in the brain to produce feelings of relaxation and calm, and suppresses that of glutamate, a neurotransmitter that produces feelings of excitability. However, with regular drinking to excess, eventually your body adapts by becoming less affected by the way alcohol affects your neurotransmitters, a condition known as tolerance.
To suddenly stop drinking causes these suppressed neurotransmitters to rebound in a condition known as hyper-excitability. Think of it as your body having to re-align, and so temporarily in a condition characterized by anxiety, irritability, agitation, and uncontrolled body movements, that are the opposite of those associated with being drunk.
As quickly as two hours after the last drink and potentially lasting a few weeks, withdraw can range from mild anxiety and shakiness, but can sometimes be more severe seizures and delirium tremens, characterized by an overpowering sense of confusion, rapid or irregular heartbeats, and fever.
Minor uncomfortable symptoms may start even when there is still some measurable amount of alcohol in your blood, and include shaky hands or tremors in other parts of the body, sweating, anxious feelings, nausea, headaches, depression or an inability to think clearly, insomnia and nightmares, irritability and mood swings, clammy skin.
Later, 12 to 48 hours after you've stopped drinking, you may experience alcoholic hallucinosis, or mild hallucinations, that are unusual, but with the awareness they are not real. You may be at risk for seizures between 24 and 48 hours after cessation.
More severe symptoms usually peak at 5 days, and may include delirium tremens, irregular heartbeat, high agitation or a mild fever.
There may also be some protracted withdraw symptoms, or mild withdraw symptoms that may continue for as much as a year after withdraw. These symptoms include a desire for alcohol, a decreased ability to feel pleasure, headaches, nausea, and insomnia.
It may seem like these long-term symptoms will never end, but they to decrease in intensity over time.
How to treat the symptoms and make it through
The symptoms of alcohol withdraw can worsen rapidly, so it is best to seek medical care and undertake detoxification under qualified medical supervision. If seizures, sever confusion, hallucinations, or irregular heartbeats occur, seek emergency medical treatment immediately.
If your symptoms are mild, a doctor may recommend outpatient detoxification, in a setting where you can be comfortable and surrounded by supportive friends and family. But more severe symptoms, or risk factors like pregnancy, a lack of a good support network, or a history of mental illness may require inpatient care, where you are under more direct medical supervision.
Medication may be used to suppress the more dangerous and severe symptoms. Medical care can help to lessen and relieve some of the symptoms, allowing your body to do the hard work of repairing itself. Of course, the only way to truly recover from alcohol withdraw is if the detoxification treatment is followed by treatment for the larger problem of alcohol abuse.
A combination of medication, a group support 12-step program, and cognitive behavior therapy may be necessary to make the hard process of withdraw the first step towards a true recovery.