Making the decision to work towards sobriety can be a very important life-changing decision with many long-term rewards, but can also be a challenge. There can be some unpleasant side effects to the body repairing itself and learning how to operate without alcohol, but that shouldn't be a reason to avoid entering treatment for alcohol addiction.
While some people experience severe symptoms at first, many others find it to be a fairly easy process. Here are some of the things you might expect while dealing with alcohol withdrawal, as well as ways you can help deal with the symptoms and cope with the first stages of recovery.
What to expect
Withdrawal simply means that your body is going without a substance it has grown dependent on. As alcohol leaves your bloodstream, your brain and body may feel drained, and have the need to recalibrate in order to learn how to function sober. Alcohol floods the brain with excessive amounts of certain neurotransmitters, so that over time, the brain becomes less receptive to those chemical signals. This means that without alcohol, the brain needs time before it's able to be receptive to other things that can produce feelings of calm and relaxation.
Some of the more difficult symptoms psychological, and may include irritability, anxiety, an inability to hold on to your thoughts, trouble falling asleep, mood swings, and mild depression. You may have trouble concentrating, or working up the motivation to do anything. Possible physical symptoms include nausea, headaches, sweaty skin, and trembling. The symptoms of withdrawal may begin as shortly as five hours after your final drink, peaks within 48 to 72 hours, and fades away, with some residual effects lasting a few weeks.
One important tool in dealing with alcohol withdrawal is to distraction. Use over-the-counter medicines to lessen the headaches and nausea and feel as comfortable as possible, and then focus on other things. Television, music, time with other people, and exercise can all be good ways to take your mind off your discomfort and cravings.
Prepare for time to relax and rest, recognizing that fighting your addiction may be the hardest job of your life, but one of which you are capable. You can stay motivated and fight your cravings by remind yourself of your reasons for seeking sobriety. One helpful exercise involves writing down your reasons for seeking sobriety, and the hopeful future you can envision for yourself.
It can also be very helpful to start getting into a habit of eating well. Especially focus on foods that are hydrating, including water, juices, broth, and gelatin. Some other good choices include foods rich in vitamin B12 (fish, eggs, and milk), thiamine (eggs, beans, and nuts), and folic acid (leafy greens and fruits).
Even if you do find your symptoms mild enough to go through at home, you can talk to your doctor about your withdrawal plan. Some prescription drugs that can be useful for moderate to severe withdrawal include antipsychotics, medication for lowering blood pressure, benzodiazepines, and anti nausea medicine.
When to seek medical attention
For most drinkers, withdrawal is a fairly straightforward process that will be lessened by simply treating the symptoms and waiting for it to pass as the body heals itself. However, in some cases, particularly with severe heavy drinkers who regularly consume excessive alcohol over a long period of time, the withdrawal process can be more dangerous.
The more severe symptoms include heart failure, and delirium tremens (DT). DT is a form of severe alcohol withdrawal characterized by seizures and hallucinations, and can be fatal if untreated. If you experience these symptoms, seek medical attention immediately. In these more serious cases, it is better to undergo the withdrawal process under medical supervision.