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Alcohol Withdrawal | Psychological & Physiological Symptoms

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Alcohol withdrawal is a complex and potentially life-threatening condition that occurs when a person abruptly stops or significantly reduces their alcohol consumption after prolonged periods of heavy drinking. 

The symptoms of alcohol withdrawal can be both psychological and physiological, affecting various systems of the body. While some individuals may only experience mild symptoms, others may develop severe and even fatal complications. 

In this article, we will explore the various psychological and physiological symptoms of alcohol withdrawal, the risk factors associated with the condition, and the available treatment options to help individuals safely manage the withdrawal process.

What is Alcohol used for?

Alcohol is a widely consumed beverage that is primarily used for its intoxicating effects. It is a central nervous system depressant that can produce feelings of relaxation, euphoria, and decreased inhibitions. 

People also consume alcohol for social, cultural, and recreational purposes, such as celebrating special occasions, socializing with friends and family, or as part of religious or cultural practices. In addition, some people use alcohol as a coping mechanism to deal with stress, anxiety, or other emotional issues. 

However, it is important to note that excessive or long-term use of alcohol can lead to a range of negative health consequences and increase the risk of developing alcohol use disorders.

What is Alcohol withdrawal?

Alcohol withdrawal is a set of physical and psychological symptoms that can occur when a person who has been regularly consuming alcohol suddenly stops or significantly reduces their alcohol intake. 

Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, and long-term or heavy use can lead to physical dependence on the substance. When alcohol intake is abruptly discontinued, the brain and body experience a state of hyperexcitability, leading to the onset of withdrawal symptoms. 

The severity and duration of symptoms can vary depending on several factors, including the amount and duration of alcohol consumption, the individual’s overall health status, and any underlying medical conditions.

 If left untreated, severe alcohol withdrawal can lead to life-threatening complications such as seizures, delirium tremens, and even death. Therefore, it is crucial for individuals who are experiencing alcohol withdrawal symptoms to seek medical attention and appropriate treatment.

Is it common to have Alcohol withdrawal? 

Alcohol withdrawal is a common condition that can occur in individuals who have been drinking heavily for an extended period of time and then abruptly stop or significantly reduce their alcohol consumption. It is estimated that up to 50% of individuals who have been drinking heavily for an extended period may experience alcohol withdrawal symptoms.

Symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal:

Alcohol withdrawal can occur when an individual who has been drinking heavily for an extended period abruptly stops or reduces their alcohol consumption. The symptoms of alcohol withdrawal can range from mild to severe and can be both psychological and physiological. 

Psychological symptoms

The psychological symptoms of alcohol withdrawal are:

  • Anxiety is a common symptom of alcohol withdrawal. It can range from mild to severe and may include feelings of restlessness, nervousness, and tension.
  • Individuals undergoing alcohol withdrawal may experience symptoms of depression. These symptoms may include feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and lack of energy.
  • Difficulty sleeping is another common psychological symptom of alcohol withdrawal. Individuals may have difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, or both.
  • Irritability and agitation are common psychological symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. Individuals may become easily frustrated or angered.
  • Confusion and disorientation are common psychological symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. Individuals may have difficulty concentrating, remembering things, or making decisions.

Physiological symptoms

Here are some common physical symptoms of alcohol withdrawal:

  • Tremors or shaking
  • Sweating, especially at night
  • Rapid heartbeat or palpitations
  • High blood pressure
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Abdominal cramping and pain
  • Loss of appetite
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue and weakness
  • Insomnia or difficulty sleeping
  • Seizures
  • Delirium tremens (DTs), a severe and potentially life-threatening form of alcohol withdrawal that can cause hallucinations, confusion, fever, and seizures.

How to manage Alcohol withdrawal?

Managing alcohol withdrawal typically involves a combination of medical intervention, supportive care, and lifestyle changes. The specific treatment plan will depend on the severity of the symptoms and the individual’s overall health. Here are some general strategies for managing alcohol withdrawal:

Medical intervention

In some cases, medical intervention may be necessary to manage the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. This may include medications to control anxiety, seizures, and other symptoms. In severe cases, hospitalization may be required for close monitoring and treatment.

Supportive care

Supportive care can help manage the physical and psychological symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. This may include providing fluids, nutrition, and rest to help the body recover. Additionally, counseling or therapy can help individuals cope with the psychological effects of alcohol withdrawal and provide support and encouragement throughout the recovery process.

Lifestyle changes

Lifestyle changes can also help manage alcohol withdrawal symptoms and prevent future relapse. This may include avoiding triggers, such as social situations or stressors, that may lead to alcohol use. Additionally, engaging in regular exercise, eating a healthy diet, and getting enough sleep can help promote physical and mental health.

Follow-up care

After the initial treatment of alcohol withdrawal, it is essential to continue ongoing care to prevent relapse. This may include ongoing therapy or counseling, participation in support groups, and regular check-ins with a healthcare provider.

Overall, managing alcohol withdrawal requires a comprehensive approach that addresses both the physical and psychological aspects of the condition. With the right treatment plan and support, individuals can successfully overcome alcohol withdrawal and maintain a healthy, alcohol-free lifestyle. 

How long can Alcohol withdrawal symptoms last? 

The duration of alcohol withdrawal symptoms can vary widely depending on factors such as the individual’s level of alcohol consumption, how long they have been drinking, and their overall health. 

In general, mild to moderate alcohol withdrawal symptoms can start within hours of the last drink and can last from a few days to 2 weeks, while more severe symptoms such as delirium tremens (DTs) can last for several weeks.

Alcohol Withdrawal Timeline

Here is a general alcohol withdrawal timeline to give an idea of what to expect:

  1. Within 6-12 hours after last drink: Mild symptoms may appear, such as tremors, anxiety, headache, and nausea.
  2. 12-24 hours after last drink: More severe symptoms may emerge, such as seizures, hallucinations, and confusion.
  3. 24-48 hours after last drink: Symptoms may peak during this time, and individuals may experience a rapid heartbeat, high blood pressure, fever, and delirium tremens (DTs).
  4. 2-5 days after last drink: Symptoms may gradually start to improve, although some individuals may experience ongoing symptoms such as insomnia, mood swings, and irritability.
  5. 1-2 weeks after last drink: Most physical symptoms will subside, although some individuals may continue to experience psychological symptoms such as anxiety, depression, and cravings.

It is important to note that these timelines are general guidelines and that individual experiences can vary. Additionally, some individuals may be at risk for protracted withdrawal syndrome, which can cause ongoing symptoms for weeks or months after last using alcohol. 

Alcohol Detoxification  

Alcohol detoxification, or detox for short, is the process of removing alcohol from the body and managing the symptoms of withdrawal. During detox, it is important to provide the body with proper nutrition and hydration while avoiding substances that could potentially worsen withdrawal symptoms.

What is safe to ingest during Alcohol detox?

Here is a list of what is safe to ingest during alcohol detox:

  • Water: Drinking plenty of water can help prevent dehydration, which is a common issue during alcohol withdrawal.
  • Nutritious foods: Eating a healthy, balanced diet can help provide the body with the nutrients it needs to heal and recover. This may include foods high in protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals.
  • Vitamins and supplements: Some individuals undergoing alcohol detox may benefit from taking vitamins and supplements, particularly those that support liver health and reduce inflammation.
  • Medications: In some cases, medications may be prescribed to help manage the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal, such as benzodiazepines for anxiety or seizures.

What you should avoid during Alcohol detox?

Here is a list of what you should avoid during alcohol detox:

  • Alcohol: Obviously, alcohol should be avoided during detox, as it can worsen withdrawal symptoms and trigger relapse sometimes resulting in alcohol overdose.
  • Caffeine: Caffeine can exacerbate anxiety and insomnia, which are common symptoms of alcohol withdrawal.
  • Nicotine: Smoking or using nicotine products can also worsen anxiety and increase heart rate and blood pressure, which can be dangerous during alcohol withdrawal.
  • Sugary or processed foods: Eating sugary or processed foods can cause fluctuations in blood sugar levels, which can worsen mood swings and cravings.

Bottom Line: Managing Alcohol Withdrawal

In conclusion, alcohol withdrawal is a serious and potentially life-threatening condition that can occur when individuals who are dependent on alcohol stop drinking. Treatment for alcohol withdrawal may involve medication, therapy, and support from friends and family. 

It is important to remember that recovery from alcohol addiction is a lifelong process, and seeking professional help and support can greatly increase the chances of success. By understanding the symptoms and treatment options for alcohol withdrawal, individuals can take the necessary steps to achieve a healthier and happier life free from alcohol dependency.


Warren Phillips

Warren is a Licensed Master Social Worker, who specializes in substance abuse and mental health treatment. Clinically, Warren has developed a therapeutic skillset that utilizes a strengths-based perspective, Twelve Step philosophies, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Motivational Interviewing.

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Charleston South Carolina

Located on the historic peninsula of Charleston, South Carolina, Lantana Recovery takes a modern approach to Substance Use Disorder treatment, offering intensive clinical care while also immersing our clients in local Charleston culture.