Human beings tend to ‘go it alone’ in many things. Since that first taste of independence we experienced in toddlerhood, our ability to accept help in any aspect of our lives has been compromised. We’re happy to assist others, but when it comes to our issues or concerns, it’s often ‘we can handle things on our own, thank you very much.’
Alcohol use disorder turns that paradigm on its head. While you may think that you can stop drinking anytime you choose without any ill effects on your mind or body, that simply isn’t true. For example, if you’re drinking heavily, stopping on a dime can make you sick or even kill you. To venture into alcohol withdrawal without professional help, whether that is your family doctor or a local alcohol detox facility, is akin to playing Russian roulette with your health.
Our addiction recovery center counselors have experienced alcohol and drug withdrawal symptoms first-hand. They will be the first to tell you that quitting is a physical and mental roller-coaster ride, but there are some things you can do to make the ride a little less jarring. First, a little about what to expect when you begin the withdrawal process.
When the Drinking Stops
Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome (AWS) can be mild or severe, depending on how much and how often you drink. As an antidepressant, alcohol slows brain function and plays games with your central nervous system. The more alcohol you take in, the harder your body’s nervous system has to work to keep your brain in an awake state. No more alcohol intake presents a considerable shock to your system. It has gotten so used to the regular doses of drink that its heightened nervous system reaction continues for a period of time even without the alcohol, manifesting itself in several uncomfortable ways.
Mild AWS symptoms can begin as soon as six hours after your last drink and include anxiety, headache, nausea, vomiting, shaky hands, sweating, and insomnia. At 12 to 48 after your last drink, you can experience hallucinations and withdrawal seizures that can last for two days.
At 48 to 72 hours and beyond, you can develop confusion, fever, high blood pressure, and a racing heart. About five percent of those suffering from withdrawal symptoms at this stage will experience Delirium tremens or DTs. These are considered severe and include vivid hallucinations and delusions.
As illustrated above, even mild symptoms like nausea and vomiting can lead to more severe issues such as dehydration, loss of balance, and fainting. While more intense symptoms can be life-threatening.
Engage Some Recovery Buddies
In addition to having a professional medical provider nearby or on speed dial, it’s also critical to have recovery buddies. A good idea is to let your family members and close friends know when you start your alcohol rehab and invite them to help you as you work through it. Knowing that people care deeply about you and your recovery effort will help you stay motivated, especially through the cravings and other distress associated with alcohol detoxification.
Wait a Minute, Mr. Postman!
Have you ever written yourself a letter? If not, you may want to try it. Often when life gets particularly messy, we don’t have a great sense of recall. Write down your feelings about your addiction and how you intend to conquer it. Try asking and answering some meaningful questions, such as ‘What made me want to quit alcohol in the first place?’ and ‘How many ways will quitting help me become a happier, healthier person?’ Then, read that letter in those dark moments when you feel like giving up on your goal. And reread it as often as you need.
In recovery, you battle daily against negative feelings like shame, poor self-image, embarrassment, and fear. A thoughtful missive will remind you of who you are, how much you’re loved, and everything you have to gain by continuing the fight.
Healthy and Whole
A body riddled with the debilitating effects of alcohol needs a proper diet to get back on track. Alcohol contains about seven calories per gram, making it second only to pure fat. Even though alcohol calories are double what you would take in from a protein or carbohydrate, they’re considered ‘empty’ of nutritional value. Thus, heavy drinkers may feel full, but their bodies are starving for nutrients. As a diuretic, alcohol also causes your body to dump fluids faster than average, leaving you dangerously dehydrated.
Your doctor can offer excellent guidance on the best foods for you while quitting alcohol. Many alcohol treatment centers also provide their patients with nutritional counseling during recovery. However, like anything in life, mindful eating and drinking require practice and commitment.
Consider planning your meals for the week in advance, factoring in work and other obligations. Expect schedule changes and distractions and plan for them with ready-to-go meals and healthy snacks. As your body dries out from excessive alcohol use, you must replenish it daily with plenty of water and nutrient-rich foods.
Put Your Mind to Something Else
Distractions help tremendously when going through alcohol withdrawal. These can include taking up a new hobby, starting an exercise routine, practicing meditation and other relaxing techniques, and getting together more often with friends or family for sober activities. We find that the extracurricular activities included in a great alcohol rehab program are often as crucial to a patient’s recovery as seeing to their therapeutic and medical needs.
While we will always be ‘in recovery,’ it’s essential to remember that the immediate physical and mental distress associated with our initial alcohol withdrawal will pass eventually. Hang on … the best is yet to come.