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Triggers and Cravings

How Long Does Alcohol Withdrawal Last?

August 9, 2023
9 min read
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A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
August 9, 2023
9 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.
August 9, 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.
August 9, 2023
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Reframe Content Team
August 9, 2023
9 min read

Alcohol is often the life of the party, the familiar accompaniment to times of celebration or commiseration. But while it may appear harmless in moderation, heavy and prolonged consumption can set the stage for a daunting chapter: alcohol withdrawal.

For many, the term "alcohol withdrawal" brings vague images of shaky hands or restless nights. But there's more to this condition than meets the eye. Alcohol withdrawal is the body's response when an individual accustomed to regular, heavy drinking suddenly reduces or ceases their alcohol consumption. Picture your brain having grown used to dancing in sync with alcohol's beats. When the music suddenly stops — when you stop drinking alcohol is stopped — the brain stumbles, leading to a cascade of physical and emotional symptoms.

As with any profound life experience, the symptoms and severity of alcohol withdrawal are unique to each of us. Some might face mild discomfort, while others could confront life-threatening complications. The timeline following quitting can be predictable, but it's also influenced by a variety of factors.

If you're considering or currently navigating this challenging path, preparation is paramount. By understanding the signs, knowing when to seek medical assistance, and arming yourself with coping strategies, you can approach this journey with confidence.

What Is Alcohol Withdrawal?

We all know that alcohol withdrawal is no picnic. But what is it, exactly? The term refers to a set of symptoms that may happen when a person who has been drinking heavily for weeks, months, or years suddenly stops or significantly reduces their alcohol intake.

The brain is at the center of withdrawal symptoms. Accustomed to adjusting for alcohol’s depressant effects, it has learned to increase the production of certain chemicals that stimulate brain activity. When alcohol consumption is reduced or stopped, the brain doesn’t shift gears right away; it continues to produce stimulating chemicals at a higher rate, even though alcohol’s depressant effects are no longer present.

This imbalance in brain chemistry leads to withdrawal symptoms, which are both physical and psychological. Physical symptoms include nausea, sweating, shaking, headache, and elevated heart rate, while psychological ones include anxiety, irritability, depression, and mood swings.

In more severe cases, withdrawal can also include hallucinations, seizures, as well as the notorious DTs, delirium tremens — a condition that consists of confusion, fever, and even severe hallucinations and agitation.

Because alcohol withdrawal can be severe and potentially life-threatening, it can be a good idea to manage it under medical supervision. Treatment might include medical assessment, monitoring of vital signs, nutritional support, medication, and ongoing support and therapy to aid in long-term recovery.

The Timeline of Alcohol Withdrawal

Alcohol withdrawal isn't a universal experience — it varies from person to person. Typically, it follows a general timeline, but the duration and severity of symptoms can be influenced by several factors, including how long you've been drinking, how much you typically drink, your overall physical health, and whether you've been through withdrawal before.

  • 6-12 hours post-last drink. Mild symptoms usually start appearing within the first day. These can include anxiety, shaky hands, insomnia, and nausea.
  • 12-24 hours post-last drink. As time goes on, symptoms might progress to hallucinations. But don't worry, these aren't typically the terrifying kind. You might hear or see things that aren't there, but you know they aren't real.
  • 24-48 hours post-last drink. Symptoms often peak around this time. This period could involve seizures, which are brief, uncontrollable disruptions of the brain's electrical activity.
  • 48 hours and beyond. Some people experience a severe form of alcohol withdrawal known as delirium tremens. This can occur anywhere from 48 hours to several days after the last drink, and symptoms can include severe confusion, high blood pressure, fever, and hallucinations that feel real. If you experience these symptoms, get medical help right away.
  • Several days to a few weeks. Many symptoms improve within a week, though some can linger a bit longer. You might feel tired or anxious, or have mood swings or trouble sleeping. These are signs that your brain is still adjusting to the absence of alcohol.

Navigating Through Alcohol Withdrawal

As with every great journey, it's essential to prepare and plan for any obstacles along the way. Here are some steps to help you navigate:

  • Consult a healthcare provider. Always discuss your plan to quit drinking with a healthcare professional. They can provide you with guidance, monitor your progress, and manage any withdrawal symptoms.
  • Seek support. Surround yourself with people who understand and support your journey — family, friends, or an alcohol support group. You don't have to face this journey alone!
  • Keep your environment alcohol-free. As you're starting out, it's best to avoid temptation. Make your home a safe space by removing any alcohol.
  • Manage your stress. Stress can trigger cravings. Try to manage your stress levels through activities like meditation, yoga, or reading a good book.
  • Stay active. Physical activity helps reduce cravings and improves your overall mood. Whether it's a brisk walk, a jog, or a dance class, find a physical activity that you enjoy, and stick with it!
  • Eat healthily and stay hydrated. Proper nutrition and hydration are key for your body to recover from alcohol's effects. Prioritize balanced meals and make sure to drink plenty of water.
  • Prioritize sleep. Sleep can often be disrupted during withdrawal. Try to maintain a regular sleep schedule, and create a calming bedtime routine to help improve your sleep quality.
  • Celebrate small victories. Every alcohol-free day is a victory! Celebrate these moments, no matter how small they may seem!

The next time you find yourself in that cozy armchair, enjoying your coffee and your clear mind, remember that you’ve embarked on a journey of courage and strength. Each day, each step takes you closer to reclaiming your life from alcohol. And that's something to be proud of!

Ready To Change Your Relationship With Alcohol?

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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At Reframe, we do science, not stigma. We base our articles on the latest peer-reviewed research in psychology, neuroscience, and behavioral science. We follow the Reframe Content Creation Guidelines, to ensure that we share accurate and actionable information with our readers. This aids them in making informed decisions on their wellness journey.
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