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What to expect when you give up alcohol

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With Go Sober For October getting more publicity every year, we wanted to share with you some of the typical alcohol withdrawal symptoms and side effects you may experience when you give up the booze.

If you’ve decided to quit drinking alcohol, either for Sober October, or because you feel the time is right, there might be an expectation that after a few days you’ll feel refreshed and brand new. You’ll get a clearer head, more energy, sleep better and lose weight, right? Those things will happen, but perhaps not quite in the way you think. Instead, there is a series of stages that often make people feel worse before they feel better. There is also no magic number of how many days or weeks it will take for the benefits to kick in.

We spoke to some of our doctors about the common issues people might expect to encounter on their journey to sobriety.

The first step

Deciding to give up alcohol is a positive starting point. There may be a number of reasons to give up drinking alcohol. Some of the most commons reasons to give up are;

  • You often feel the need to have a drink,
  • You get into trouble because of your drinking,
  • Other people warn you about how much you’re drinking,
  • You think your drinking is causing you problems.

We recommend telling your family and close friends that you are about to quit. Let them know you’re stopping, and why, and ask them to come with you, and support you on the journey. It will make it easier.

It’s also a good idea to start by talking with one of our doctors. Try to be accurate and honest about how much you drink and any problems it may be causing you. Tell us if you feel you have become dependent on alcohol, and if you have found it difficult to fully control your drinking in some way.

You’ll probably need some help either to cut down and control your drinking or stop completely, and also some action plans to maintain the improvement after that. That’s why it’s good to speak with us first. Our doctors may suggest different types of assessment and support options available to you.

How long will it take to feel better?

Every single person is different. Withdrawal from alcohol will vary for everybody; there really is no “normal”, and it can be hard to predict an individual person’s experience. No doctor will be able to pinpoint exactly how long it takes for the benefits to be felt. Some people report positive effects after as little as a week, but some people say that it was almost six months before they started feeling like themselves again. Emotions, sleep and general health patterns will all take time to level out, and this is often linked to the amount you drank, your general health before you quit drinking and even environmental and emotional factors, which can play a part in the process of giving up alcohol.

Not everyone who quits drinking alcohol experiences the same withdrawal symptoms, but many people who have been drinking for an extended period, drink frequently, or drink heavily, will experience some withdrawal if they stop using alcohol suddenly. Generally, the symptoms most commonly encountered are;

Psychological Symptoms

  • Anxiety
  • Bad dreams
  • Depression
  • Difficulty thinking clearly
  • Fatigue
  • Feeling jumpy or nervous
  • Irritability or becoming excited easily
  • Rapid emotional changes
  • Shakiness

Physical Symptoms

  • Elevated blood pressure
  • Insomnia
  • Headaches
  • Loss of appetite
  • Rapid heart rate or palpitations
  • Sweating, especially the palms of your hands or your face
  • Tremors

Some symptoms like changes in sleep patterns, fatigue, and mood swings can last for weeks or even months. But you’ll likely begin to feel healthier around five days to a week after you stop drinking.

Why does quitting make us feel worse before we feel better?

Because alcohol is a depressant it slows your brain. When a person drinks heavily, frequently, or for prolonged periods, the brain compensates for the depressant effects by releasing more stimulating chemicals (compared to when a person does not drink). Overproduction becomes the brain’s new normal.

When a person stops drinking, their brain is still producing extra chemicals, which can potentially cause the unpleasant alcohol withdrawal symptoms that are associated with overstimulation. The mind will readjust, but until it does, a person in withdrawal might feel unwell. This often leads to the relapse, so understanding why you feel unwell, and that the feelings are temporary is a crucial factor in getting through it.

Depression

Depression and alcohol are interconnected in many ways. For some, depression causes alcoholism; for others, it comes as a result of drinking. And for some people, depression hits after giving up alcohol. You might be asking then, what’s the point of becoming sober if you’re only going to feel worse? But this post-alcoholic depression is often only temporary. For instance, alcohol withdrawal can cause depression symptoms. For another, it can take time for you to adjust to cope without alcohol.

Although it doesn’t happen to everyone, depression, when you give up alcohol, is very common. Even moderate drinkers face depression after quitting alcohol. It can happen for several reasons, but if not addressed, it can lead to relapse.

There are adjustments on a chemical level when you stop drinking. Alcohol touches many systems in the body and touches almost every neurotransmitter. Your brain almost goes into hyperdrive for a while after you remove the alcohol and are no longer numbing it. Realistically it could take anything up to a full year to reach a baseline again and feel better.

Neurotransmitters, which transmit information around your brain, change pretty quickly when you stop drinking. Alcohol particularly affects gama-amino butyric acid (GABA), which inhibits brain activity, and glutamate, which stimulates it. When you drink, Sansom explains, glutamate is less able to stimulate the brain, and GABA is better at inhibiting it. This is why alcohol makes you relaxed and happy, and lowers your inhibitions: It slows some of your brain’s signalling. When you stop drinking, these changes reverse themselves. “In most individuals, these receptors begin to reset themselves to a baseline level,” Dr. Donald Sansom, D.O., associate medical director at substance abuse treatment centre Sierra Tucson.

But don’t let that put you off, the long-term benefits will be unquestionably positive. As they say; It’s a marathon, not a sprint. It will take a lot of will-power and perseverance, and the sense of pride will be a huge boost to you.

Emotional Recovery

Once you let alcohol go, there’s a time of adjustment psychologically too. You’ve let go of your shield and need to work through those issues and stressors before you can move on. That can be a wild card in answering the question; “how long does it take to start feeling better after you stop drinking?

All the reasons you drank are still there. You just numbed them with the alcohol. Now it’s time to figure out where the anxiety and depression came from and how you’re going to deal with it without the alcohol. When you’re using alcohol to dull your emotions, and then you suddenly stop doing that, you’re left to confront a lot of truths about your life that you were choosing to ignore, sometimes for years at a time. That is scary, and emotionally very draining.

When you were drinking, alcohol may have been used as a coping mechanism for when things got complicated. Now, that is no longer the case. Therefore, when you encounter problems, you might feel unable to cope as well as before. The added stress, combined with any other events you face when you quit alcohol, can lead to some confusing places.

Try to remind yourself that every problem that you do face up to, and handle without alcohol, will boost your confidence, but you have to do it to receive the positive feedback. Therefore, face the smaller challenges first so you can and tackle the harder ones later.

Physical Benefits

Not only is your brain repairing itself, it’s also sending signals to your organs, your muscles and every area of your body to start working towards reestablishing the balance you’ve been disrupting. Your body has had everything slowed down for so long – your thought process, reaction time, digestion, etc. that it can’t fix everything all at once. It’s going to approach this systematically and logically.

You can start feeling better within days of quitting drinking but there are rarely any overnight and instantaneous benefits. You’ll notice small improvements each day. Maybe try to journal those improvements so you can look back on them to see how far you’ve come and can revel in the fact that your body is in fact healing.

If you are managing your withdrawal from alcohol correctly, you will soon start to feel a sense of purpose in what you are doing, a sense of competence in your abilities, and a sense of belonging in your new life. These will all boost your well-being, self-esteem, and immune system. When this happens, the feelings of depression will diminish, and that will expedite your recovery.

Treatment options

Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can be significantly reduced or even eliminated with proper medical support. Whilst Vala is not a specialised alcohol recovery programme, our doctors are always online to answer any questions and offer advice on how to deal with the mental and physical issues you might be experiencing on a day-to-day, or week-to-week basis throughout the journey.

The symptoms of withdrawal are also a significant cause of relapses in the early stages of giving up. People who are trying to stop drinking might give up if the symptoms of withdrawal become aggravating enough to prompt them to have a drink to ease the discomfort.

It may seem a cliche, but the old advice of eat well, sleep sufficiently, and exercise plenty are some of the simplest and best things you can do. If you take care of yourself, you will feel better about yourself.

Try and take time to do things that you enjoy, such as read a good book, and make sure to treat yourself occasionally. They can make a huge difference and relieve stress, which often triggers depression, and the urge to have a drink.

One thing is for sure, having a Vala doctor in your pocket can be a real source of encouragement and support during the early stages of withdrawal. We can also help you find other support resources that are available for people who are ready to stop drinking, or want to reduce the harm alcohol is causing in their life by cutting down. 

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or addiction, you could start by searching for a local support group or expert. Here are some other resources you could also try:

Drinkchat

Free online chat service for anyone who is looking for information or advice about their own, or someone else’s, drinking. Trained advisors are on hand to give you confidential advice. Visit the Drinkchat website.

Drinkline

Free, confidential helpline for anyone who is concerned about their drinking, or someone else’s.

Helpline0300 123 1110 (weekdays 9am–8pm, weekends 11am–4pm)

We Are With You (formerly Addaction)

UK-wide treatment agency, helping individuals, families and communities to manage the effects of drug and alcohol misuse. Visit the We Are With You website.

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) Great Britain

AA supports the recovery and continued sobriety of individuals. Meetings are available online and in person. Visit the AA website.

Helpline0800 917 7650

Email helplinehelp@aamail.org

Al-Anon

Al-Anon in the UK and Republic of Ireland offers support to families and friends affected by someone else’s drinking.

Helpline0800 008 6811

Visit the Al-Anon website

ADFAM

Information, advice and local support services for families affected by alcohol and drugs.

Visit the ADFAM website

National Association for Children of Alcoholics (NACOA)

Information, advice and support for children of alcohol-dependent parents and anyone concerned with the welfare of a child.

Helpline0800 358 3456

Email helplinehelpline@nacoa.org.uk

Visit the National Association for Children of Alcoholics website

Alcohol support services and healthcare in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland:

Samaritans

Confidential non-judgmental emotional support, 24 hours a day for people who are experiencing feelings of distress, despair or suicide.

Helpline116 123 (24hrs)

Email helplinejo@samaritans.org (they try their hardest to get back to your email within 24 hours)

Visit the Samaritans website

Mind

Information and advice about mental health and support services.

Visit Mind’s website

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