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What Does Alcohol Withdrawal Feel Like?

Published:
October 29, 2023
·
18 min read
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Written by
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.
October 29, 2023
·
18 min read
Reframe App LogoReframe App Logo
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.
October 29, 2023
·
18 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.
October 29, 2023
·
18 min read
Reframe App LogoReframe App Logo
Reframe Content Team
October 29, 2023
·
18 min read

In The Gargoyle, Andrew Davidson writes: “It was not long before I discovered that withdrawing addicts lost their composure in exactly the same manner that careless millionaires lose their money: gradually, then suddenly.” Even though the discomfort of quitting a substance is temporary, at the moment it can feel anything but.

For many of us, alcohol becomes a companion. On festive days, after a tough day at work, or even just as a weekend treat, we rely on alcohol. When we decide to take a step back from it, the body, which might have become used to its regular presence, reacts with withdrawal symptoms.

When it comes to alcohol withdrawal, understanding what lies ahead on this journey is crucial. Let’s walk through what it feels like and explore some actions to make this journey a tad bit smoother.

Brain Balance

To understand alcohol withdrawal, it's essential to know what alcohol does to the brain. 

The brain is a master of balance: it constantly strives to maintain a state of equilibrium known as homeostasis. Neurotransmitters — chemical messengers in the brain — play a vital role in this balancing act. They ensure that everything, from our emotions to our physical reactions, remains stable and predictable.

Alcohol, however, throws a wrench in this system through the impact it has on two main neurotransmitters: GABA and glutamate.

  • GABA. This is an inhibitory neurotransmitter, which induces feelings of relaxation and calmness. Alcohol boosts the effects of GABA, leading to the drowsy, relaxed feelings many associate with a few drinks.
  • Glutamate. On the flip side, glutamate is an excitatory neurotransmitter. It's responsible for amping things up and keeping us alert. Alcohol suppresses the effects of glutamate, decreasing the stimulation and excitement in the brain.

So when we drink, we’re turning up the volume on GABA and turning down the volume on glutamate. The brain is then operating under a new, alcohol-induced normal. As it becomes accustomed to the presence of alcohol, it adjusts its neurotransmitter production accordingly by producing more excitatory neurotransmitters and fewer inhibitory ones, trying to counterbalance alcohol's effects.

The Withdrawal Kick-Off

Deciding to take a break or quitting drinking altogether is like pulling the rug out from under the neurotransmitter production process. Our brain still operates under the assumption that it needs to counteract the alcohol; however, without the actual alcohol present, the result is a chemical imbalance that manifests itself as withdrawal symptoms. The brain is still going into overdrive producing excitatory neurotransmitters in an attempt to combat alcohol’s depressive effects. At the same time, the production of inhibitory neurotransmitters is reduced.

The result is that the nervous system becomes hyperactive, and it ultimately leads to a range of withdrawal symptoms we recognize, from the physical shakes and sweats to the emotional anxiety and irritability. Let’s explore the situation in more detail.

1: Physical responses

Without alcohol's depressive effects, our nervous system goes on high alert. Depending on how much and how often we’ve been drinking, alcohol withdrawal can bring about:

  • Tremors (shakiness). Ever woken up after a night of drinking with a bit of a shake? That's your nervous system going into overdrive due to your body’s response to missing its usual alcohol intake. The hands in particular can become notably shaky.
  • Nausea and vomiting. The digestive system has a close relationship with alcohol. When the usual alcohol isn’t there, the stomach might protest, leading to feelings of nausea or even some unfortunate trips to the bathroom.
  • Sweating. The body is working hard to adjust and detoxify, and in doing so, might turn up the internal thermostat a tad, resulting in increased sweating. Think of it as your body’s way of saying, “Hey! Where's my usual drink?”
  • Headaches. With the brain’s neurotransmitters trying to recalibrate, it can sometimes cause pressure changes leading to headaches.
  • Increased heart rate. Don't be surprised if your heartbeat feels faster. The body's autonomic nervous system is trying to adapt to the absence of alcohol.
  • Sleep disruptions. Remember those inhibitory neurotransmitters that make us feel sleepy when drinking? With their numbers reduced, falling and staying asleep can become challenging.
  • Delirium tremens (DTs). For heavy drinkers or those who have been drinking for extended periods, withdrawal can take a more severe form known as delirium tremens (DTs). This is no joke and can be life-threatening. Symptoms like hallucinations and seizures indicate you're in dangerous territory and need immediate medical attention.

It might sound challenging, but remember, every change, every twinge, every bead of sweat is a sign of your body healing, readjusting, and rebooting for a healthier you. Keep hydrated, rest up, and know that with each passing day, you're taking another step towards a renewed state of health. In the meantime, rest, take it easy, but also be aware of more severe symptoms like high fevers, severe confusion, or seizures. If any of these appear, it's crucial to seek medical attention immediately.

2: Mental and emotional responses

When the usual supply of alcohol is suddenly removed, your brain goes into a bit of a frenzy trying to find its balance, leading to heightened feelings of anxiety, irritability, and in some cases, depression. One can feel:

  • Anxiety. A sense of unease or worry can surge as our neurotransmitters attempt to find balance.
  • Irritability. If minor issues set you off a bit more than usual, it’s not you; it’s your brain’s chemical makeup in flux.
  • Depression. Feeling low? Again, neurotransmitters like serotonin are in a bit of chaos.
  • Nightmares. Scary dreams that might interrupt sleep can sometimes appear during withdrawal.

Not Everyone's Ride Is the Same

While the above symptoms are common, it's essential to understand that everyone's body is different. Some might just feel a bit “off,” while others might experience more intense reactions.

You might experience all, some, or none of the listed symptoms. And that’s okay! It’s all part of your unique journey. Everyone has their own unique path to trek. Let's dive into why this is the case and what it means for your personal expedition:

  • Personal histories. First and foremost, every person has a unique history with alcohol. Some may have been frequent social drinkers, others might have had nightly rituals, and others yet might have experienced bouts of heavy drinking. The intensity and duration of one’s relationship with alcohol can greatly influence the withdrawal process.
  • Biological factors. Believe it or not, our genes play a role in how we react to alcohol withdrawal. Some people are naturally equipped with biological tools that help them process the absence of alcohol more efficiently, while others might find the journey more challenging due to their genetic makeup.
  • Health and lifestyle. Your overall health and lifestyle choices can also influence the withdrawal journey. Factors like diet, exercise, hydration, and even stress levels can all play a role. For instance, someone who is generally well-hydrated might experience milder symptoms compared to someone who doesn't drink enough water.
  • Psychological elements. Our minds are powerful. Past traumas, stressors, or underlying mental health conditions can shape how one navigates the waters of alcohol withdrawal. Withdrawal isn’t just a physical process. It's deeply intertwined with our mental and emotional states.
  • Setting and support. The environment you’re in and the support you receive can make a world of difference. Understanding friends or family, or even support groups, can provide a cushion during the tougher times. On the other hand, stressful or non-supportive environments might make the journey more challenging.

With all these variables, it's easy to see why everyone's experience is so individual. But there's beauty in this variety. By sharing stories, tips, and insights, people can find solace in knowing they're not alone, even if their journey looks a bit different from someone else's.

Time Heals and Rebalances

Here's the uplifting part: the human body is incredibly adaptable and resilient. As days go by without alcohol, the body starts recalibrating. It shifts back towards its natural state, reducing and eventually eliminating withdrawal symptoms.

As time progresses and the brain realizes alcohol is no longer in the picture, it starts recalibrating. Neurotransmitter production gradually returns to its natural state, and withdrawal symptoms lessen and eventually disappear.

Steps for Navigating Withdrawal

Navigating withdrawal can be tough, but it’s not impossible. Here are some concrete, science-backed steps to help you through.

Diagram about responses to alcohol withdrawal
  • Talk to a medical professional. Before you even start, consult a healthcare provider for a personalized plan. They might prescribe medications like benzodiazepines to ease withdrawal symptoms.
  • Stay hydrated. Your body is detoxifying, so drink plenty of fluids to help the process along. Aim for at least eight 8-ounce glasses of water daily.
  • Nutrient-rich diet. Opt for foods rich in vitamins and minerals, especially B vitamins and magnesium, which help repair nerve tissues and balance neurotransmitter levels.
  • Hydrate with herbal teas. Swap out alcoholic beverages with herbal teas. Chamomile or passionflower tea can be soothing and promote relaxation. Peppermint or ginger tea can aid digestion, especially if nausea is a symptom you’re combating.
  • Create a safe space. Designate a corner of your home as a relaxation zone. Stock it with soft pillows, comforting blankets, your favorite books, or calming scents. Dim the lights, play soft music, and remove any alcohol-related triggers from your space. When things get overwhelming, retreat to this area for solace.
  • Prioritize sleep with a bedtime routine. A disrupted sleep pattern is common during withdrawal. Create a calming bedtime ritual; it could involve reading, listening to soft music, or practicing deep-breathing exercises to signal to your body that it's time to wind down.
  • Mindfulness techniques. Deep breathing exercises and mindful meditation can be instrumental in controlling anxiety and irritability. It can also work wonders when it comes to reducing cravings. Often, cravings arise from automatic reactions to certain triggers. Mindfulness helps us recognize these triggers and the associated feelings without immediately reacting to them. By observing cravings as transient thoughts or feelings, we can learn to let them pass without acting on them.
  • Use aromatherapy. Scents like lavender, chamomile, or frankincense can have calming properties. Keep an essential oil roller or diffuser handy to create a soothing environment.
  • Reach out for support. Don’t go it alone. Keep a supportive friend or family member on speed dial for when times get tough.
  • Monitor your progress. Keep a journal to jot down your symptoms, moods, and milestones. By noting patterns, triggers, or specific times of day when symptoms flare up, you can prepare and perhaps even find ways to alleviate them. It not only helps you be aware of any dangerous symptoms that require medical attention but also serves as a motivator for your journey.

In addition to documenting your daily experiences and symptoms, keep track of your progress. It’s a tangible record of how far you’ve come!

The Road Ahead

The road to a healthier you starts with understanding what you’re up against. Now armed with science, strategies, and actionable tips, you’re more prepared to make this journey a successful one. Remember, you're not just quitting alcohol — you're starting a life where you’re in control. How empowering is that?

So go ahead, reclaim your body and your life. You’ve got this!

In The Gargoyle, Andrew Davidson writes: “It was not long before I discovered that withdrawing addicts lost their composure in exactly the same manner that careless millionaires lose their money: gradually, then suddenly.” Even though the discomfort of quitting a substance is temporary, at the moment it can feel anything but.

For many of us, alcohol becomes a companion. On festive days, after a tough day at work, or even just as a weekend treat, we rely on alcohol. When we decide to take a step back from it, the body, which might have become used to its regular presence, reacts with withdrawal symptoms.

When it comes to alcohol withdrawal, understanding what lies ahead on this journey is crucial. Let’s walk through what it feels like and explore some actions to make this journey a tad bit smoother.

Brain Balance

To understand alcohol withdrawal, it's essential to know what alcohol does to the brain. 

The brain is a master of balance: it constantly strives to maintain a state of equilibrium known as homeostasis. Neurotransmitters — chemical messengers in the brain — play a vital role in this balancing act. They ensure that everything, from our emotions to our physical reactions, remains stable and predictable.

Alcohol, however, throws a wrench in this system through the impact it has on two main neurotransmitters: GABA and glutamate.

  • GABA. This is an inhibitory neurotransmitter, which induces feelings of relaxation and calmness. Alcohol boosts the effects of GABA, leading to the drowsy, relaxed feelings many associate with a few drinks.
  • Glutamate. On the flip side, glutamate is an excitatory neurotransmitter. It's responsible for amping things up and keeping us alert. Alcohol suppresses the effects of glutamate, decreasing the stimulation and excitement in the brain.

So when we drink, we’re turning up the volume on GABA and turning down the volume on glutamate. The brain is then operating under a new, alcohol-induced normal. As it becomes accustomed to the presence of alcohol, it adjusts its neurotransmitter production accordingly by producing more excitatory neurotransmitters and fewer inhibitory ones, trying to counterbalance alcohol's effects.

The Withdrawal Kick-Off

Deciding to take a break or quitting drinking altogether is like pulling the rug out from under the neurotransmitter production process. Our brain still operates under the assumption that it needs to counteract the alcohol; however, without the actual alcohol present, the result is a chemical imbalance that manifests itself as withdrawal symptoms. The brain is still going into overdrive producing excitatory neurotransmitters in an attempt to combat alcohol’s depressive effects. At the same time, the production of inhibitory neurotransmitters is reduced.

The result is that the nervous system becomes hyperactive, and it ultimately leads to a range of withdrawal symptoms we recognize, from the physical shakes and sweats to the emotional anxiety and irritability. Let’s explore the situation in more detail.

1: Physical responses

Without alcohol's depressive effects, our nervous system goes on high alert. Depending on how much and how often we’ve been drinking, alcohol withdrawal can bring about:

  • Tremors (shakiness). Ever woken up after a night of drinking with a bit of a shake? That's your nervous system going into overdrive due to your body’s response to missing its usual alcohol intake. The hands in particular can become notably shaky.
  • Nausea and vomiting. The digestive system has a close relationship with alcohol. When the usual alcohol isn’t there, the stomach might protest, leading to feelings of nausea or even some unfortunate trips to the bathroom.
  • Sweating. The body is working hard to adjust and detoxify, and in doing so, might turn up the internal thermostat a tad, resulting in increased sweating. Think of it as your body’s way of saying, “Hey! Where's my usual drink?”
  • Headaches. With the brain’s neurotransmitters trying to recalibrate, it can sometimes cause pressure changes leading to headaches.
  • Increased heart rate. Don't be surprised if your heartbeat feels faster. The body's autonomic nervous system is trying to adapt to the absence of alcohol.
  • Sleep disruptions. Remember those inhibitory neurotransmitters that make us feel sleepy when drinking? With their numbers reduced, falling and staying asleep can become challenging.
  • Delirium tremens (DTs). For heavy drinkers or those who have been drinking for extended periods, withdrawal can take a more severe form known as delirium tremens (DTs). This is no joke and can be life-threatening. Symptoms like hallucinations and seizures indicate you're in dangerous territory and need immediate medical attention.

It might sound challenging, but remember, every change, every twinge, every bead of sweat is a sign of your body healing, readjusting, and rebooting for a healthier you. Keep hydrated, rest up, and know that with each passing day, you're taking another step towards a renewed state of health. In the meantime, rest, take it easy, but also be aware of more severe symptoms like high fevers, severe confusion, or seizures. If any of these appear, it's crucial to seek medical attention immediately.

2: Mental and emotional responses

When the usual supply of alcohol is suddenly removed, your brain goes into a bit of a frenzy trying to find its balance, leading to heightened feelings of anxiety, irritability, and in some cases, depression. One can feel:

  • Anxiety. A sense of unease or worry can surge as our neurotransmitters attempt to find balance.
  • Irritability. If minor issues set you off a bit more than usual, it’s not you; it’s your brain’s chemical makeup in flux.
  • Depression. Feeling low? Again, neurotransmitters like serotonin are in a bit of chaos.
  • Nightmares. Scary dreams that might interrupt sleep can sometimes appear during withdrawal.

Not Everyone's Ride Is the Same

While the above symptoms are common, it's essential to understand that everyone's body is different. Some might just feel a bit “off,” while others might experience more intense reactions.

You might experience all, some, or none of the listed symptoms. And that’s okay! It’s all part of your unique journey. Everyone has their own unique path to trek. Let's dive into why this is the case and what it means for your personal expedition:

  • Personal histories. First and foremost, every person has a unique history with alcohol. Some may have been frequent social drinkers, others might have had nightly rituals, and others yet might have experienced bouts of heavy drinking. The intensity and duration of one’s relationship with alcohol can greatly influence the withdrawal process.
  • Biological factors. Believe it or not, our genes play a role in how we react to alcohol withdrawal. Some people are naturally equipped with biological tools that help them process the absence of alcohol more efficiently, while others might find the journey more challenging due to their genetic makeup.
  • Health and lifestyle. Your overall health and lifestyle choices can also influence the withdrawal journey. Factors like diet, exercise, hydration, and even stress levels can all play a role. For instance, someone who is generally well-hydrated might experience milder symptoms compared to someone who doesn't drink enough water.
  • Psychological elements. Our minds are powerful. Past traumas, stressors, or underlying mental health conditions can shape how one navigates the waters of alcohol withdrawal. Withdrawal isn’t just a physical process. It's deeply intertwined with our mental and emotional states.
  • Setting and support. The environment you’re in and the support you receive can make a world of difference. Understanding friends or family, or even support groups, can provide a cushion during the tougher times. On the other hand, stressful or non-supportive environments might make the journey more challenging.

With all these variables, it's easy to see why everyone's experience is so individual. But there's beauty in this variety. By sharing stories, tips, and insights, people can find solace in knowing they're not alone, even if their journey looks a bit different from someone else's.

Time Heals and Rebalances

Here's the uplifting part: the human body is incredibly adaptable and resilient. As days go by without alcohol, the body starts recalibrating. It shifts back towards its natural state, reducing and eventually eliminating withdrawal symptoms.

As time progresses and the brain realizes alcohol is no longer in the picture, it starts recalibrating. Neurotransmitter production gradually returns to its natural state, and withdrawal symptoms lessen and eventually disappear.

Steps for Navigating Withdrawal

Navigating withdrawal can be tough, but it’s not impossible. Here are some concrete, science-backed steps to help you through.

Diagram about responses to alcohol withdrawal
  • Talk to a medical professional. Before you even start, consult a healthcare provider for a personalized plan. They might prescribe medications like benzodiazepines to ease withdrawal symptoms.
  • Stay hydrated. Your body is detoxifying, so drink plenty of fluids to help the process along. Aim for at least eight 8-ounce glasses of water daily.
  • Nutrient-rich diet. Opt for foods rich in vitamins and minerals, especially B vitamins and magnesium, which help repair nerve tissues and balance neurotransmitter levels.
  • Hydrate with herbal teas. Swap out alcoholic beverages with herbal teas. Chamomile or passionflower tea can be soothing and promote relaxation. Peppermint or ginger tea can aid digestion, especially if nausea is a symptom you’re combating.
  • Create a safe space. Designate a corner of your home as a relaxation zone. Stock it with soft pillows, comforting blankets, your favorite books, or calming scents. Dim the lights, play soft music, and remove any alcohol-related triggers from your space. When things get overwhelming, retreat to this area for solace.
  • Prioritize sleep with a bedtime routine. A disrupted sleep pattern is common during withdrawal. Create a calming bedtime ritual; it could involve reading, listening to soft music, or practicing deep-breathing exercises to signal to your body that it's time to wind down.
  • Mindfulness techniques. Deep breathing exercises and mindful meditation can be instrumental in controlling anxiety and irritability. It can also work wonders when it comes to reducing cravings. Often, cravings arise from automatic reactions to certain triggers. Mindfulness helps us recognize these triggers and the associated feelings without immediately reacting to them. By observing cravings as transient thoughts or feelings, we can learn to let them pass without acting on them.
  • Use aromatherapy. Scents like lavender, chamomile, or frankincense can have calming properties. Keep an essential oil roller or diffuser handy to create a soothing environment.
  • Reach out for support. Don’t go it alone. Keep a supportive friend or family member on speed dial for when times get tough.
  • Monitor your progress. Keep a journal to jot down your symptoms, moods, and milestones. By noting patterns, triggers, or specific times of day when symptoms flare up, you can prepare and perhaps even find ways to alleviate them. It not only helps you be aware of any dangerous symptoms that require medical attention but also serves as a motivator for your journey.

In addition to documenting your daily experiences and symptoms, keep track of your progress. It’s a tangible record of how far you’ve come!

The Road Ahead

The road to a healthier you starts with understanding what you’re up against. Now armed with science, strategies, and actionable tips, you’re more prepared to make this journey a successful one. Remember, you're not just quitting alcohol — you're starting a life where you’re in control. How empowering is that?

So go ahead, reclaim your body and your life. You’ve got this!

Summary FAQs

1. Why does the body experience alcohol withdrawal symptoms?

The body, especially the brain, adjusts its operations when you regularly consume alcohol to maintain a balance. When you reduce or quit alcohol, the body needs time to recalibrate to its natural state without alcohol's presence. This adjustment period can lead to various withdrawal symptoms.

2. How does alcohol affect neurotransmitters in the brain?

Alcohol interacts with two primary neurotransmitters: GABA (which induces relaxation) and glutamate (which keeps us alert). Drinking boosts the effects of GABA while suppressing glutamate. This altered balance leads to the brain feeling relaxed and less excited.

3. What are some common physical symptoms of alcohol withdrawal?

Some of the frequent physical manifestations include tremors or shakiness, nausea and vomiting, sweating, headaches, and an increased heart rate. However, everyone's experience can differ.

4. Why does everyone seem to have a different experience with withdrawal?

Everyone’s relationship with alcohol is unique. Factors like personal drinking history, genetics, overall health, lifestyle choices, psychological conditions, and the environment can all influence the withdrawal process, making each person's journey distinct.

5. How does the brain and body adapt to regular alcohol consumption?

The brain and body strive to maintain a state of equilibrium or "homeostasis." When alcohol is regularly consumed, the brain adjusts neurotransmitter production to accommodate its presence. This means changing the balance of chemicals to ensure stability despite alcohol's effects.

6. What role do genetics play in alcohol withdrawal?

Our genes can influence how we react to alcohol withdrawal. Some people have genetic factors that aid in processing the absence of alcohol more smoothly, while others might face more challenges based on their genetic makeup.

7. How can I best support myself or a loved one during alcohol withdrawal?

Surrounding oneself with understanding friends or family can be invaluable. Additionally, joining support groups, maintaining a healthy lifestyle, staying hydrated, and seeking medical advice when needed can all contribute to a smoother journey.

Revamp Your Life 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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