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Quitting Alcohol Cold Turkey: The Dangers and How To Cut Back Responsibly

Published:
June 6, 2022
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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.
June 6, 2022
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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.
June 6, 2022
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20 min read
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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.
June 6, 2022
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20 min read
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Reframe Content Team
June 6, 2022
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20 min read

You're ready to start a new chapter. You've decided you're giving up on alcohol, and it feels empowering. And why not? It's a Saturday morning, you've watched your last Friday evening blur away, and you're telling yourself, "No more."

But wait! Before you declare to the world you're quitting alcohol cold turkey, let's think this through. Why? Because abrupt endings can sometimes lead to unforeseen plot twists.

When we suddenly stop consuming alcohol after habitual drinking, our brain and body can reel due to the rapid withdrawal from a substance they've come to depend on. What does cold turkey mean? Is it possible to quit drinking cold turkey? And if so, should I stop drinking cold turkey? Let’s find out more.

Quitting Cold Turkey: Meaning Through the Ages

Historical shifts in our understanding of alcohol, its effects on the body, and the consequences of quitting abruptly have transformed throughout history — and so have our approaches to quitting cold turkey:

  • Ancient times: spirits and healing. Ancient cultures often perceived alcohol as a spiritual or medicinal agent. Stopping its consumption wasn’t even considered. Excessive use might have been frowned upon, but stopping its consumption altogether wasn’t even considered. Systematic withdrawal symptoms were not understood, in large part because they weren’t often seen.
  • Medieval era: sin and redemption. In the medieval period, alcohol abuse was sometimes associated with moral weakness or sinful behavior, particularly within religious contexts. Someone wanting to "quit" alcohol might have been encouraged to seek penance or spiritual guidance. The physiological effects of sudden abstinence, however, were not yet well-understood.
  • 18th and 19th centuries: beginnings of medical insight. With advancements in medical science, the 18th and 19th centuries saw growing recognition of alcohol's impact on the body. This era marked the early stages of identifying withdrawal symptoms, though "quitting cold turkey" wasn't approached as it is today. There were attempts, often rudimentary, to treat alcohol-related ailments, but a comprehensive understanding of withdrawal was still in its infancy.
  • 20th century: rise of rehabilitation and science. The 1900s brought about significant change in our understanding of alcohol and abstinence. The establishment of Alcoholics Anonymous in the 1930s and the subsequent rise of rehabilitation centers indicated a growing acknowledgment of alcohol addiction as a medical and psychological condition. The dangers of quitting cold turkey became clearer, as did the need for medically supervised withdrawal. By the latter half of the century, research into the neuroscience of addiction provided further insights, leading to more effective treatment strategies.
  • 21st century: holistic approaches and digital aids. Our current era champions a holistic understanding. We recognize the physical, emotional, and psychological aspects of alcohol dependence. Moreover, the potential dangers of quitting cold turkey are widely acknowledged, leading to strong advocacy for supervised, gradual approaches. Technology has also stepped onto the scene, with apps and online platforms (like Reframe!) offering tools, resources, and communities to support those on the alcohol reduction journey.

The Cold Turkey Method: Is It Safe To Quit Drinking Cold Turkey?

Can an alcoholic quit cold turkey? And what does cold turkey mean? Today, we have a more nuanced understanding of what happens when we try. Armed with scientific knowledge, resources, and support, we stand a better chance than ever to navigate the challenges of alcohol cessation with care and success.

1. Physical Impact

Quitting alcohol suddenly after long-term consumption can lead to physical withdrawal symptoms. The body has gotten used to alcohol’s presence, and when it's suddenly gone, chaos ensues. Withdrawal is no picnic, and in some severe cases, the symptoms might require medical attention — if that’s you, it’s best to err on the side of safety! 

Here’s the breakdown:

  • Shakes and tremors. Just as a caffeine enthusiast might experience a headache without their morning coffee, a sudden lack of alcohol can cause our hands and body to tremble. It's the body's way of signaling its distress.
  • Nausea and vomiting. Our stomach, used to processing alcohol, can react violently when it's suddenly absent, resulting in nausea or vomiting.
  • Sweating. When we suddenly quit alcohol, our body might respond with increased sweating as it tries to adjust.
  • Elevated heart rate. Our heart might race a bit faster than usual, similar to how we feel after a sudden sprint. The body is trying to cope with the change, which can sometimes send it into overdrive.
  • High blood pressure. Our blood pressure might spike, making us feel on edge. It's the body's immediate response to the change in its environment.
  • Headaches. That throbbing headache? It’s another symptom of the body missing its usual alcohol dose.
  • Brain chemistry changes. Alcohol depresses the brain's functions. When we suddenly stop drinking, our brain's neurotransmitters can become hyperactive, potentially leading to anxiety, agitation, and in some cases, delirium (more on this below).
2. Delirium tremens (DTs): What You Need To Know

One of the most dangerous potential withdrawal symptoms is important enough that it deserves its own discussion: the delirium tremens, or DTs. 

Delirium tremens (DTs) is a severe form of alcohol withdrawal syndrome that can occur when someone who drinks excessively either stops short or significantly reduces their alcohol intake. It's vital to understand the nature of this beast, especially when considering quitting alcohol.

What are the symptoms of DTs?

  • Agitation and restlessness. People experiencing DTs may seem extremely restless or agitated, finding it hard to stay calm or settled.
  • Confusion. Cognitive functions can be severely impaired, leading to a state of confusion in which the individual may not recognize familiar places or people.
  • Hallucinations. Unlike the more benign hallucinations that some people may experience during alcohol withdrawal, DTs can cause more intense and terrifying visual, auditory, or tactile hallucinations.
  • Severe shaking. This isn't just the mild hand tremor associated with common withdrawal; it can involve full-body shakes or seizures.
  • High fever. Elevated body temperature, often accompanied by excessive sweating, can be another hallmark of DTs.
  • Rapid heartbeat. The heart rate might become worryingly fast, which can be distressing for the person experiencing it.

The risks associated with DTs are serious. They are not just the result of the absence of alcohol in the system — they’re a sign of how dependent the body has become on it. The complications can be quite serious:

  • Heart issues. The stress on the cardiovascular system from DTs can lead to heart strain or even heart attack.
  • Injury from falls. Due to confusion or seizures, there's a higher risk of falls and subsequent injuries.
  • Risk to life. In extreme cases and without appropriate medical intervention, DTs can be fatal.

The effects can be even worse if nutritional deficiencies are involved, since they’re known to complicate withdrawal.

Treatment and Management of DTs

If someone shows signs of DTs, it's crucial to seek immediate medical attention. There is a wide range of treatment possibilities:

  • Hospitalization. Due to DTs’ severity, inpatient care is often necessary. This ensures constant monitoring and quick intervention if complications arise.
  • Medication. Doctors often prescribe benzodiazepines or antipsychotic medications to manage symptoms and stabilize the patient.
  • Hydration and nutrition. Intravenous fluids might be given to ensure the person remains hydrated, and nutritional imbalances are corrected.
  • Supportive care. This involves ensuring the person’s safety, potentially using restraints if there's a risk of harm, and offering a calm, quiet environment to minimize agitation.

As we can see, going "cold turkey" without understanding or preparing for potential complications can be dangerous. Always consult with healthcare professionals and consider a managed, supervised approach to quitting alcohol, especially if you've been a heavy or long-term drinker.

Diagram about post-acute withdrawal symptoms
3. Emotional and Psychological Impact: Should I Stop Drinking Cold Turkey?

When it comes to quitting alcohol — especially if you've been partaking for a while — it's not just the body that feels the shift. The mind can also undergo some significant changes. What might you expect on the emotional and psychological front?

Mood Fluctuations
  • Mood swings. It's the emotional equivalent of weather changes — sunny one moment and stormy the next. We might find ourselves feeling elated, then suddenly downcast, and angry soon thereafter. 
  • Irritability. Small things that didn’t bother us before might become annoying. A heightened sense of irritability is common as the brain recalibrates.
  • Depression. Feelings of sadness or hopelessness might creep in. Alcohol often acts as a mask for underlying emotions; when it's gone, these feelings surface more prominently.
  • Anxiety. We might feel an uptick in anxious thoughts or general unease. As alcohol’s calming effects fade, our brain's natural alertness can sometimes be interpreted as anxiety.
Sleep Patterns and Dreams
  • Insomnia. Remember those nights when sleep came easily after a drink? Now, as our body adjusts, we might find it challenging to fall asleep or stay asleep.
  • Vivid dreams. When we do manage to get some shut-eye, we might experience unusually vivid or even unsettling dreams. Changes in our brain chemistry can lead to changes in our dream patterns.
Cognitive Effects
  • Concentration difficulties. Tasks that seemed straightforward might appear a bit more challenging. It's not uncommon to face moments of foggy thinking or difficulty concentrating.
  • Memory gaps. Our short-term memory might play tricks on us. We could find ourselves forgetting minor things or struggling to remember details.
  • Decision-making challenges. Without alcohol’s influence, our decision-making patterns can change. We might second-guess ourselves more or feel overwhelmed by choices.

The emotional and psychological changes after quitting alcohol cold turkey can feel like a roller coaster. But these shifts are only temporary! As our mind and body find their new equilibrium, many of these symptoms will ease. During this period, leaning on support networks, staying informed, and possibly seeking professional guidance can make the transition smoother and more manageable. Everyone’s path is unique, so recovery looks different from one person to the next. It's all a part of the journey toward a healthier life — and Reframe is here to help! 

Cutting Back Responsibly: A Gradual Approach

So, should I stop drinking cold turkey? Opting for a more gradual approach, rather than abruptly going abstinent, can be more manageable for your body and brain. Here are some tips to consider:

  • Take it slow. Not everyone has the same alcohol tolerance. It's essential to recognize your own boundaries and stick to them.
  • Track your drinks. Maintain a diary or use an app to record your alcohol consumption. This way, you can monitor and gradually reduce your intake. (The tracking features of Reframe can make this process easy and fun!)
  • Go for non-alcoholic alternatives. A wide range of non-alcoholic drinks on the market mimic the taste of alcoholic beverages. Opting for these can help ease the transition.
  • Consult a healthcare professional. It's crucial to get an expert's perspective. They can offer advice tailored to your specific situation.
  • Set clear boundaries. Quantify the number of days you'll drink and the days you won't. For instance, if you usually drink every day, start by cutting back to five days a week.
  • Avoid triggers. Recognize what urges you to drink — is it stress, boredom, or social pressure? Find alternative ways to handle these triggers.
  • Stay hydrated. Drink water or non-alcoholic beverages between alcoholic drinks. It helps reduce your total alcohol intake and keeps you well hydrated.
  • Get support. Share your goals with friends or family, or join a support group. This increases your accountability and decreases loneliness.
  • Reward yourself. Every time you reach a milestone, like a week or a month without alcohol, treat yourself to something you love.

The Big Picture: Can an Alcoholic Quit Cold Turkey?

While intending to quit or cut back on alcohol is commendable, it's essential to do it the right way. Theoretically, you can stop drinking cold turkey, but it’s not necessary or recommended. It’s not about speed! Gradual, measured steps can make the process smoother, safer, and more sustainable. 

Choosing to quit or reduce alcohol consumption is an investment in your future. In the years to come, your body will thank you. From liver function to heart health, from sleep patterns to energy levels, the long-term physical benefits are numerous. And it's not just about preventing potential harm, but about rejuvenating and rediscovering a vitality that alcohol might have suppressed.

As time goes on, your emotions will stabilize, clarity will return, and mental fog will lift. There's a newfound depth to be explored in the world of feelings and thoughts, unburdened by the effects of alcohol. Personal growth, enhanced emotional intelligence, and a deeper understanding of oneself can flourish in this new space. Without alcohol as an intermediary, connections can be more genuine, conversations more meaningful, and shared moments more memorable.

In sum, while the initial stages of quitting alcohol are fraught with challenges, the big picture is one of hope, renewal, and endless possibilities. It's a journey worth embarking on, with the promise of a brighter, more vibrant tomorrow on the horizon!

Summary FAQs

1. What does it mean to quit alcohol "cold turkey"?

Quitting "cold turkey" means stopping alcohol consumption abruptly, without gradually reducing the intake or seeking transitional methods.

2. Are there physical repercussions to quitting abruptly?

Yes, quitting cold turkey can lead to withdrawal symptoms such as headaches, nausea, high blood pressure, and in severe cases, delirium Tremens (DTs), which can be life-threatening.

3. How does quitting alcohol impact mood and cognition?

Quitting drinking cold turkey can lead to mood swings, irritability, depression, anxiety, challenges with concentration, memory lapses, and alterations in decision-making.

4. What is delirium Tremens (DTs) and why are they significant?

DTs is a severe form of alcohol withdrawal syndrome characterized by symptoms like agitation, hallucinations, high fever, and rapid heartbeat. It's vital to recognize and treat DTs promptly due to potential life-threatening complications.

5. How have historical views on quitting alcohol cold turkey changed?

Over time, understanding has evolved from ancient views of alcohol as spiritual or medicinal, through the medieval perspective of moral weakness, to modern medical and psychological insights that recognize the complexities of alcohol dependence and withdrawal.

6. What's the broader perspective of quitting alcohol for the long term?

Choosing to quit or reduce alcohol is an investment in one's future health, emotional well-being, relationships, and personal growth. It promises a life of increased vitality, clarity, and opportunities.

7. Are there tools or resources to help someone considering quitting alcohol?

Yes, there are numerous resources ranging from medical professionals and rehabilitation centers to online platforms and apps designed to offer guidance, support, and community for those looking to reduce or quit alcohol consumption.

Ready To Let Alcohol Go? Reframe Can Help!

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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