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Drinking Habits

Alcohol Withdrawal: A Timeline of What To Expect

Published:
May 16, 2023
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20 min read
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Reframe Content Team
A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
May 16, 2023
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20 min read
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
May 16, 2023
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
May 16, 2023
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20 min read
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Reframe Content Team
May 16, 2023
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20 min read

Quitting alcohol requires courage! Not only does it involve a major lifestyle overhaul, but for many of us, the road to alcohol-free living comes with physical and psychological discomfort in the form of withdrawal. Unfortunately, some of us may return to alcohol use as a result of these challenges. But knowledge is power! If we know what to expect during the withdrawal process, we’re much more likely to stay the course. 

So, what can we really expect during the withdrawal process? In this blog post, we'll explore the various stages of the alcohol withdrawal timeline, breaking it down so you have a clear understanding of what lies ahead. We want to give you the information that’ll help you stick to your goals so you can become your healthiest self. Let’s get started!

Stage 1: Days 1-3

The onset of stage 1 of alcohol withdrawal usually materializes 6 to 12 hours after the last consumed drink. This brief window underscores the body's deep-rooted dependence on alcohol. When the body is used to a consistent supply of alcohol, its sudden absence disrupts the system, leading to a range of withdrawal symptoms.

During these initial days, the body manifests a spectrum of mild to moderate symptoms. The nervous system, which had adjusted to the presence of alcohol, suddenly finds itself in a hyperactive state. This abrupt change is most evident in the heightened state of anxiety many people experience. There's an inexplicable nervousness, a constant feeling of dread, and an underlying irritability that can make us snap at the smallest of triggers.

Digestive symptoms are also predominant at this stage. Nausea and vomiting can make eating a challenge. The body, already grappling with the absence of alcohol, needs nourishment, but the digestive upheaval can deter people from consuming substantial meals. This is why it's recommended to consume foods that are easy on the stomach. Bananas, rich in vital nutrients and known for their natural antacid properties, can offer relief. Light, hydrating soups (think broth-based, not cream-based) serve as an excellent option, too. It's not just about what we consume but also about what we should avoid. Excessive caffeine can further irritate the stomach and exacerbate anxiety.

Insomnia, another troubling symptom of this phase, can leave us feeling drained. The body craves rest, but the mind remains restless. Reducing screen time, especially during the evening, can help prepare the body for sleep. When a full night's sleep seems elusive, short naps during the day can replenish some energy.

Amid these physical symptoms, it's paramount to also address the emotional and psychological turmoil. The journey of withdrawal is as much (or more!) a mental battle as it is a physical one. Simple self-soothing practices, such a calming bubble bath, can offer temporary relief from the anxiety. For those familiar with Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) tapping, this can be a beneficial tool to employ during heightened states of stress.

Stage 2: Days 3-7

After making it through the initial phase, we enter the second stage, stretching from days 3 to 7, a period in which withdrawal symptoms can intensify considerably. Among the myriad possible symptoms, delirium tremens (DTs) stands out not just for its severity but also for its potentially life-threatening implications.

Delirium tremens, often shortened to DTs, is a severe manifestation of alcohol withdrawal. This condition is marked by acute episodes of agitation, a state of mental confusion or disorientation, and hallucinations. The hallucinations aren't only visual; we can also experience auditory and tactile hallucinations, hearing or feeling things that aren't present.

The onset of DTs is typically 48 to 72 hours after the last drink. However, the body's response to withdrawal can be unpredictable, and in some cases, the onset of DTs can be delayed, presenting itself up to 10 days after discontinuing alcohol. This variability in onset further underscores the need for close monitoring during the withdrawal phase.

Certain factors exacerbate the risk of developing DTs. Those of us with a history of multiple alcohol withdrawal episodes are more susceptible, as each withdrawal can make the nervous system more sensitive to the absence of alcohol. Prolonged periods of alcohol misuse can also increase the risk, given the profound impact long-term alcohol consumption can have on brain chemistry and structure. Additionally, those of us with existing medical conditions, especially liver diseases or infections, are at a heightened risk.

Given the severity of DTs, it’s imperative to recognize it as a medical emergency. A mere 5% of people withdrawing from alcohol might experience DTs, but it can be fatal if not addressed promptly. Elevated blood pressure, rapid heart rate, and fever often accompany the primary symptoms of DTs, making immediate medical attention even more critical.

If someone is suspected of experiencing DTs, they should not be left alone. Continuous supervision is essential, and immediate medical assistance should be sought. Hospitals or detoxification facilities are equipped to handle such emergencies, providing medications, monitoring vital signs, and ensuring the individual's safety.

Delirium tremens (DTS): Image illustrating alcohol withdrawal symptoms of confusion and shaking

Stage 3: Days 7-14

Good news! By the end of the first week and into the second, most physical withdrawal symptoms begin to subside. However, we may still face psychological symptoms such as mood swings, anxiety, and cravings for alcohol. It's essential to be aware of these challenges and to seek support from friends, family, or professionals to help manage these lingering symptoms.

Here are a few tips to stay a step ahead of cravings during this time and as you proceed with your journey:

  1. Avoid triggers. To stop alcohol cravings, recognize and avoid triggers like social events, stress, or boredom. Find alternative ways to cope, such as engaging in healthy activities like exercise or meditation. Limit exposure to alcohol-rich environments until you feel confident to resist cravings.
  2. Build a support system. Overcoming cravings is easier with a support system of friends, family, or professionals. Counseling or support groups provide resources for reducing cravings. Additionally, online spaces (like Reframe’s 24/7, anonymous Forums!) offer a community of like-minded individuals with whom you can share your struggles and swap tips. 

  3. Develop effective coping mechanisms. Implement healthy coping mechanisms like deep breathing and mindfulness. Being present and aware of our thoughts, feelings, and surroundings helps us detach from cravings and reduce their intensity.
  4. Find (healthy!) distractions. Redirect your attention toward satisfying or pleasurable pursuits, such as hobbies or spending time with loved ones. Engaging in enjoyable activities has been shown to reduce cravings, so make time for the people and things that make you feel your best.
  5. Practice self-care. Prioritize your physical and emotional well-being throughout the withdrawal process by practicing good self-care. This includes exercise, healthy eating, and sufficient sleep, among other grounding practices. These basic lifestyle behaviors help us reduce stress and anxiety, common triggers for alcohol cravings.

Stage 4: Weeks 2-4

As the journey of alcohol withdrawal progresses into its second to fourth weeks, the recovery landscape undergoes a significant shift. The acute physical symptoms, which are usually intense and immediately noticeable, begin to wane. The body, having grappled with the immediate absence of alcohol, is beginning to recuperate. But while these physical manifestations diminish, the psychological challenges amplify. This transition marks the onset of post-acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS).

PAWS represents a prolonged period of withdrawal symptoms, which can stretch out for several months. The distinguishing factor of PAWS is its predominantly psychological nature. Whereas the earlier stages of withdrawal were characterized by tangible physical symptoms, PAWS primarily presents challenges that are cognitive and emotional.

Among the myriad of symptoms, irritability stands out. This isn't just an occasional bad mood, but a consistent undercurrent of frustration and agitation. Sleep disturbances are also rampant, and we may find ourselves either battling insomnia or experiencing disrupted sleep patterns. Anxiety, too, takes center stage, casting shadows of doubt, worry, and fear — even in scenarios that don’t warrant such reactions.

Perhaps the most daunting aspect of PAWS is the potential onset of depression. The weight of this emotional state can be heavy, coloring every facet of our life with a hue of hopelessness or sadness. The world seems bleaker, and motivation may be hard to muster.

The complexity of PAWS makes it crucial for us to lean on a robust support system. These symptoms are less visible than their physical counterparts, so empathetic friends, family, and peers are invaluable. Constant reassurances, regular check-ins, and an understanding ear can make a world of difference.

However, the persistence or intensification of PAWS symptoms should not be brushed aside as mere side effects of recovery. If these symptoms begin to impede our daily life or cast a pall over our well-being, professional intervention becomes necessary. A physician or a therapist can provide clarity, direction, and potential treatments to manage and alleviate these symptoms.

There's a societal narrative that often equates seeking help with weakness, but this couldn't be further from the truth. Asking for support, especially during challenging times, is a testament to our strength and commitment to healing. Embracing this journey of recovery from alcohol is a commendable feat in itself, a step towards a healthier and more harmonious life.

Stage 5: Months 1-6

The first six months of alcohol-free living are a critical period for those of us adjusting to this lifestyle. While PAWS symptoms may gradually decrease, we need to remain vigilant in managing our cravings and maintaining our alcohol-free habits. During this time, it's essential to continue practicing our healthy coping strategies, such as exercise, meditation, and therapy, to support the recovery process.

We may also feel ready to start sharing our story with others. Whether we choose to discuss our previous relationship with alcohol with friends and loved ones, or more publicly at events or online, this openness and vulnerability is a big part of the healing process. Your story can help so many others going through the same process, especially those who are a few steps behind and need a little encouragement. Telling your story can also remind you of your own growth and progress. Your alcohol-free story matters, and it deserves to be shared with the world!

Stage 6: Beyond 6 Months

For many of us, this six-month period becomes the beacon that illuminates the vast capacities of the human spirit and body to heal and rejuvenate.

For many of us, by the time we reach the six-month point in our sobriety journey, the intensity and frequency of our cravings often diminish. Our once-overwhelming thoughts and urges related to alcohol start to wane, making daily life more manageable. This is not just a physical reprieve; it’s a profound psychological one. It reinforces the  powerful, hopeful notion that no condition is eternal — change is not just possible but inevitable. The body, with its intricate systems and resilience, undergoes a remarkable journey of repair and restoration.

However, as with all profound transformations, sobriety is not a destination but a continual journey. Even in the relative ease that might dawn after six months, we must remain vigilant. The initial triggers or circumstances that led to our alcohol dependence might still exist. It’s therefore crucial to hold onto the habits and the mindset shifts we developed during the recovery process. Whether we attend support group meetings, practice mindfulness, or engage in therapeutic activities, staying committed to these regimens ensures that the foundation of sobriety remains robust.

And as we tread this ongoing path, it’s vital to pause and acknowledge the milestones. Every day without alcohol, every challenge faced head-on, and every temptation resisted is a victory. These aren't just markers of time passing; they’re tangible evidence of strength, perseverance, and unwavering dedication. Celebrating these achievements, no matter how small they might seem, serves as a reminder of our potential and capabilities.

Final Thoughts on the Alcohol Withdrawal Timeline

The alcohol withdrawal symptoms timeline can seem daunting, but understanding what to expect at each stage can make the process a little less arduous. As we've seen, withdrawal symptoms can range from mild to severe, and may last anywhere from days to months. However, with the right support and coping strategies, we can successfully navigate these challenges and get to the other side feeling confident and capable.

So, how much should you start cutting back as you work toward an alcohol-free lifestyle? We recommend that you cut back by no more than 10% per week to avoid adverse symptoms and dangerous complications.

Summary FAQs

1. What can we expect during the alcohol withdrawal process?

Withdrawal from alcohol involves various stages, each presenting unique physical and psychological challenges. These stages range from immediate symptoms to those experienced several months after quitting.

2. What symptoms can we expect during the initial days (1-3) of alcohol withdrawal?

The first few days can bring heightened anxiety, irritability, digestive issues like nausea and vomiting, and insomnia. Consuming easy-to-digest foods and reducing screen time can help during this phase.

3. What is delirium tremens (DTs) and when does it typically occur?

DTs is a severe manifestation of alcohol withdrawal characterized by agitation, confusion, and hallucinations. It typically arises 48-72 hours after the last drink but can appear up to 10 days later.

4. What are some challenges faced during days 7-14 of alcohol withdrawal?

While most physical symptoms start to wane during this period, individuals may still experience mood swings, anxiety, and strong cravings for alcohol. Effective coping mechanisms and a support system are crucial during this stage.

5. What is PAWS (post-acute withdrawal syndrome)?

PAWS refers to prolonged withdrawal symptoms mainly of a cognitive and emotional nature, such as irritability, sleep disturbances, anxiety, and potential depression, which can last several months.

6. What can be expected in the first six months of an alcohol-free lifestyle?

While PAWS symptoms might diminish, it's crucial to manage cravings and continue with healthy coping strategies. Sharing one's alcohol-free journey can be a healing process during this time.

7. What should one remember beyond the six-month alcohol-free mark?

Even after six months, it's vital to remain vigilant, continue healthy habits, and celebrate milestones of sobriety. Staying committed ensures a strong foundation for continued sobriety.

Bonus: How should one cut back on alcohol consumption for a smoother transition?

It's recommended to reduce alcohol intake by no more than 10% per week to prevent severe symptoms and complications.

Find Support During Recovery With Reframe!

Although it isn’t a treatment for alcohol use disorder (AUD), the Reframe app can help you cut back on drinking gradually, with the science-backed knowledge to empower you 100% of the way. Our proven program has helped millions of people around the world drink less and live more. And we want to help you get there, too!

The Reframe app equips you with the knowledge and skills you need to not only survive drinking less, but to thrive while you navigate the journey. Our daily research-backed readings teach you the neuroscience of alcohol, and our in-app Toolkit provides the resources and activities you need to navigate each challenge.

You’ll meet millions of fellow Reframers in our 24/7 Forum chat and daily Zoom check-in meetings. Receive encouragement from people worldwide who know exactly what you’re going through! You’ll also have the opportunity to connect with our licensed Reframe coaches for more personalized guidance.

Plus, we’re always introducing new features to optimize your in-app experience. We recently launched our in-app chatbot, Melody, powered by the world’s most powerful AI technology. Melody is here to help as you adjust to a life with less (or no) alcohol.

And that’s not all! Every month, we launch fun challenges, like Dry/Damp January, Mental Health May, and Outdoorsy June. You won’t want to miss out on the chance to participate alongside fellow Reframers (or solo if that’s more your thing!).

The Reframe app is free for 7 days, so you don’t have anything to lose by trying it. Are you ready to feel empowered and discover life beyond alcohol? Then download our app through the App Store or Google Play today!

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