The term “withdrawal” is often associated with harder drugs and especially with opioids, but the truth is that there are serious withdrawal symptoms from alcohol use. Not only can the withdrawal symptoms last for quite a while, but they can even be fatal for those who have consumed alcohol for a long time and in high quantities.
Before understanding how alcohol withdrawals occur, it’s important to know how alcohol affects the body in general. Alcohol is a small molecule that can quickly access many parts of the body through the bloodstream. This is why it doesn’t take long for alcohol to make you feel different, but this also means that it can reach the brain, nervous system, and other important areas within seconds or minutes.
Alcohol directly affects the nervous system by depressing it or slowing it down. This means that the electrical signals that your body naturally fires through the nervous system have to work harder to reach their destination. Alcohol also destroys brain cells and contracts neural tissue. If alcohol use is prolonged, then it may even affect memory and cognition permanently.
It’s not just the central nervous system that’s slowed down. Alcohol also slows down many brain receptors along with interfering with how neurons communicate with each other.
Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is the neurotransmitter that is most tied to relaxation, and it produces feelings of happiness and well-being. Frequent alcohol use creates a GABA imbalance in the brain that results in withdrawal.
Alcohol also affects dopamine production in the brain. Dopamine is a neurochemical that makes you feel good; it’s the brain’s reward chemical. The brain releases dopamine after exercise, yoga, or meditation, but it also releases dopamine when you consume alcohol. Once you are accustomed to consuming alcohol and then stop, your dopamine production stops, and this causes withdrawal.
For people who don’t consume alcohol often or in large quantities, these withdrawal symptoms are quickly resolved. Even after a hard night out, many people will wake up with a hangover that will fairly quickly fade away. The problem is that repeated and excessive exposure to alcohol makes these effects worse, and it also makes it more likely that you will experience intense withdrawal symptoms.
Why Alcohol Causes Withdrawal Symptoms
You now know the major systems that are affected by alcohol, but why does it cause withdrawal symptoms? The major reason relates to how alcohol affects the nervous system. As we said before, alcohol use depresses the nervous system, which means that it has to work harder to make sure that signals go where they should.
Normally, this is a temporary process. Your nervous system will go back to normal after a few hours or maybe a day, which might cause a hangover in the meantime. The problem is that daily drinking makes it much harder for the nervous system to recover. It actually becomes dependent on alcohol and gets used to running in this slower, stressed state.
When you stop drinking, then your nervous system might have a hard time adjusting, but it’s a process that you can get through with appropriate help. Your nervous system is effectively confused. It no longer has alcohol to stress and slow it down, but it will continue firing at this rate while adjusting to the new chemical circumstances.
It’s at this point that the withdrawal symptoms start. The most significant withdrawal symptoms, such as seizures, are the direct result of this adjustment period.
Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms
Unlike many other substances, there is a fairly clear timeline regarding when withdrawal symptoms happen and what to expect. The length of the withdrawals, along with the severity, largely depends on how much you consumed and for how long.
For example, those who drank more than they should have for the last few days will likely only experience mild to moderate symptoms. However, those with have drunk for months or years are more likely to experience severe symptoms, and the detox process will take longer in general.
Initial Withdrawal Symptoms
Alcohol withdrawal symptoms begin around six hours after your last drink and involve:
• Shaking hands
This sounds a lot like a hangover, and that’s essentially what it is.
Serious Withdrawal Symptoms
More serious withdrawal symptoms start about 12 hours after your last drink and can go until around 48 hours after your last drink. Along with the other symptoms still occurring, you may now also experience anxiety, restlessness, a high heart rate of over 100 beats per minute, auditory and visual hallucinations, and seizures.
For those who have been drinking very heavily for a long time, there is one more set of withdrawal symptoms to get through. These occur around 48 to 72 hours after your last drink. Only a very small percentage of people will experience these symptoms, so there’s no guarantee that this will happen to you, but it’s a possibility.
Known as delirium tremens, or DTs, these are the most severe withdrawal symptoms. These include:
• Vivid hallucinations
• Very believable delusions
• Significant confusion
• Racing heartbeat
• High blood pressure
• Severe sweating
The detox process, in short, is waiting for your body to process all the alcohol and get back to its normal rhythm. Some people may choose to do this at home, and there is a chance that it might be successful, but it’s best to seek professional help.
Not only can a rehab center best help with the detox process, but this ensures that you’ll be medically monitored the entire time. As we discussed before, many of the withdrawal symptoms can be dangerous or even fatal. This is especially true for those who will face DTs or other significant withdrawal symptoms.
Another reality to remember is that you’ll be in a vulnerable state during this time. Your mind will tell you that alcohol can help ease whatever discomfort you’re experiencing. While it may temporarily help, this will prolong the addiction. Having a treatment team can help you get through these tough parts.
While each detox is different, as some will be inpatient while others might be fine with outpatient care, the shared factor is that detox involves a medical and therapeutic team watching over your alcohol use treatment. Not only will you be monitored, but you may also be prescribed medications to help you get through the withdrawal symptoms. This is very helpful as you’ll be able to start your recovery on the right foot. Detox takes about 72 hours for most substances, including alcohol. You will be watched and helped through the process until you’re feeling better.
Levels of Care
The proper level of care will largely depend on how much support you need, the length of the addiction, and other associated factors. We offer various levels of care to help you with your recovery journey. While detox might be done within just a matter of days, it often takes longer to make recovery more permanent. You need to learn new ways to cope with stress and to associate with the world.
Inpatient Residential Treatment
Inpatient residential treatment is the highest level of care that we offer. This involves living at our facilities for about 30 to 90 days. During this time, you will live with peers who are also going through recovery as you are assisted by doctors, nurses, and therapists.
Inpatient care ensures that you have 24/7 care and access to support. Not only that, but it gets you away from the stressors of your daily life. You’ll be able to focus entirely on your recovery.
During your stay, you will be involved in individual and group therapy. You will also take part in recovery activities that bolster your resilience and help you find a new way of living and thinking. You’ll feel healthy and whole by the end of your stay.
Partial Hospitalization Program
A partial hospitalization program, or PHP, stands between inpatient and outpatient care. Unlike inpatient care, you will be living at home for part of the day. Unlike outpatient care, PHP involves significant time at our treatment facility.
Each recovery center is slightly different. Defining Wellness’ PHP program is six hours a day for five days a week to give you 30 clinical hours of treatment. This ensures that you get support throughout the day while being able to sleep in your own bed and see your friends and family members. Some people even continue work while engaging in PHP treatment.
PHP is best if you are stepping down from inpatient care or if outpatient hasn’t given you enough support.
This level of treatment still allows you to live at home, work, see your friend and family while also getting the support you need to recover from alcohol use disorder. Intensive outpatient, or IOP, is a higher outpatient level of care that involves around 10 clinical hours of support.
This is usually delivered through three group sessions a week that each last three hours, along with one or more individual sessions. During the group sessions, you will meet other peers as a therapist helps you learn new coping skills to aid with recovery and stress management.
The least intensive level of therapeutic care that we offer is outpatient therapy. This most often involves one or two weekly meetings with your counselor along with a group or two, depending on your needs. While it’s the shortest level of care, you’ll find it highly effective as you can discuss your needs and learn new coping skills that support your recovery. This is best for those who are stepping down from higher levels of care or those who present with more mild addictions.
We also provide monitoring services. This involves us calling to check in and see how you’re doing. Not only does this help keep you accountable, but you can also discuss cravings before they turn into a relapse. Monitoring services also allow you to talk through your stressors and feel better.
There are numerous self-help groups that can help you on your recovery journey. Each group is different, and each gives you more direct access to other recovery peers and the community at large.
The most popular self-help group is Alcoholics Anonymous, or AA, and it has been around for decades. Not only is this the most popular group, but it’s also one of the largest and easiest to find. No matter where you are, there are many groups in the local area that welcome new members.
While many people like 12-step groups like AA, there are some who would prefer other groups. We can help connect you with 12-step alternatives like SMART Recovery, Women for Sobriety, LifeRing and more.
Find Help Today
We’re here to help with your recovery journey. We at Defining Wellness Centers have helped many clients in the Mississippi area. Whether you’re looking for an individual session, inpatient therapy, medication-assisted treatment, technological treatments, or you aren’t quite sure which program is best for you or your loved one, contact us today, and we’ll help you start your recovery journey.