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How to get through alcohol withdrawal

Making the decision not to drink alcohol is the beginning of a healthier, happier lifestyle. With alcohol misuse being the biggest risk factor for illness, death and disability among 15-49 year olds in the UK (Alcohol Change), choosing to lead an alcohol-free life is a big step towards putting your health first.  But before you ditch the drinks, you should speak to a medical professional to ensure you wean yourself off of alcohol safely. Attempting to make dramatic changes to your drinking behaviour as an alcoholic without consulting a doctor could be dangerous and have a serious impact on your health.

If you’re looking to stop drinking and wondering what to prepare for, are already experiencing some alcohol withdrawal symptoms or looking to help a friend or family member manage staying sober, we’ve put together some tips and advice on coping with these symptoms.

What is alcohol withdrawal?

Firstly, alcohol withdrawal refers to the symptoms someone with alcohol addiction can experience when they suddenly stop drinking alcohol or start drinking significantly less than they’re used to. Alcohol withdrawal syndrome and associated symptoms can vary person to person, depending on factors such as your general health as well as how much alcohol you’re used to consuming and how often you were used to drinking.

What are the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal?

Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal range from mild to severe, so you need to be aware of any changes to your physical or mental health and seek medical attention where necessary. Mild to moderate alcohol withdrawal symptoms can include:

  • Sweating
  • Headaches
  • Lack of appetite
  • Feeling restless
  • Feeling irritable
  • Feeling confused
  • Vomiting
  • Nausea
  • Experiencing tremors and shakes
  • Insomnia 
  • Anxiety
  • Feeling depressed

More serious symptoms can include:

  • Seizures  
  • Delirium tremens (which can include an increased heart rate, raised blood pressure and difficulty breathing)
  • Being severely disorientated 
  • Experiencing heightened anxiety and/or depression

 

These more serious alcohol withdrawal symptoms can be life threatening. So, if you or someone you know is experiencing hallucinations, severe shaking or continuous vomiting, you should get medical attention right away.

In terms of when these symptoms would begin to kick in, you could start to experience mild symptoms (such as headaches) within 8 to 24 hours since your last alcoholic drink.

Essentially, the more you were used to drinking on a regular basis, the more likely you will be to experience withdrawal symptoms.

7 tips on how to deal with alcohol withdrawal 

Coping with withdrawal symptoms is challenging for anyone, but certain things will help you to manage these experiences (and may even be necessary), this includes:

1.Getting support

Nobody has to go through the journey of giving up alcohol alone. If you’re looking to drink less and deal with your alcoholism, there are many support systems out there to help you, including:

  • Your GP - getting medical advice and speaking with your GP is a great place to start when it comes to understanding your options for dealing with alcoholism. They may prescribe you medication to relieve your symptoms or suggest you seek additional help such as therapy.
  • Therapy - different types of therapy will suit different individuals, which is why there is a range of therapies out there for those combating alcoholism to explore. For example, some people will really benefit from being in an environment with people they can relate to whereas others may prefer not to discuss their personal issues as part of a group. Therapy to manage alcohol dependency includes:
  • Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) - CBT is designed to help individuals change the way they approach a situation and think about it. For example, someone with alcoholism may tell themselves, “ I need alcohol to feel less anxious”, and the role of the cognitive behavioural therapist will be to make them challenge this thought. As well as being able to identify any unhelpful thoughts, this type of therapy may also help you to understand what triggers you to drink.
  • Self-help groups - self-help groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) are designed around mutual support where people can discuss their issues with drugs and alcohol. AA also offers a 12-step facilitation therapy programme where you work with a counsellor through one-to-one meetings (this is suited to those who are not yet comfortable speaking in a group setting).
  • Family therapy - whether you’re looking for help yourself or you’re a family member of someone dealing with alcoholism, multiple people can be affected by alcohol dependence. Family therapy invites family members to gain a deeper understanding of alcohol dependence and learn ways to support the person who is trying to avoid alcohol.

With so many types of counselling and therapies to choose from, there should be an option that you feel comfortable with. Whilst you may feel nervous to join a group therapy, these can actually be very advantageous as you’ll be in a room with people who have similar experiences to you and these are safe spaces to be open and listen to each other. You may even be more motivated to stay on track as you’ll have an informal place to “report back to” and share your progress.

  • Helplines - there’s a number of confidential helplines in the UK (many of which will be free) which you can call, including:
  • Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) - AA has a 24/7 helpline, you can contact them on 08009177650.
  • AL-Anon - this is a support group for friends and family members of those dealing with alcoholism. You can contact AL Anon on 08000086811.
  • Online support services - if you would prefer to speak to someone online, there are online chat services where you can get advice confidentially, such as Drinkchat or SMART Recovery which offers online meetings for both individuals and family members of those dealing with alcoholism.
  • Professional health advisors and coaches - you can find health advisors who will be able to signpost you to the right help. Here at LiveWell Dorset, we help residents of Dorset to get the support they need to drink less and lead a healthier lifestyle. Contact us today to find out where you can get the help you need. 

2.Getting the right medication if needed

Your GP may advise that you take medication or seek addiction treatment to help you deal with your alcohol misuse. Common medications prescribed for alcohol dependency include:

  • Acamprosate - used by those who have abstained from alcohol to prevent relapse. It works by changing levels of a certain chemical in the brain (GABA) which is what makes a person crave alcohol. The course for this is typically up to six months.
  • Disulfiram - this is often taken by people who worry that they may relapse or have relapsed in the past. It works by giving you unpleasant responses to drinking alcohol such as vomiting and dizziness. The course for this is usually around six months and you’ll have to check in with your healthcare team to update them on how it’s working for you.
  • Naltrexone - this is typically used by people who wish to limit the amount of alcohol they drink or to help prevent a relapse. It works by stopping the effects that alcohol has on the body but is often taken alongside other medicines and therapies. The course for this is usually up to six months but it may be taken for longer. 
  • Nalmefene - this is also used to help limit the amount of alcohol people drink or to prevent relapse. It works by reducing a person’s craving for alcohol and is taken alongside other forms of support such as counselling.

Make sure you talk through all the questions you have about possible medical treatment options with your GP before taking any medication, so you make the right decision for you.

3. Stay hydrated

It’s important to make sure you keep your body hydrated and drink plenty of fluids. According to the EatWell Guide, you should aim to drink six to eight glasses of water a day. You should however avoid drinking caffeinated drinks as this can aggravate your symptoms and you could become addicted to caffeine. Whilst caffeine gives a stimulatory effect, it can increase your anxiety and lead to further sleep disruption.

4. Eat regularly

Eating regularly on a daily basis will help your body to get the nutrients it needs to keep you healthy. When taking drugs and alcohol, lots of the nutrients you get can be used up in the process to detox your body, so it’s important for you to aim to eat three healthy meals a day and avoid starving yourself.

5. Exercise 

Exercise, even low-impact workouts can help you through alcohol withdrawal - in fact, focusing on light workouts is best because your body will be dealing with the symptoms linked to alcohol abstinence. Being active can help you by:

    • Improving your mood - exercise stimulates the release of endorphins (which gives you a “natural high”).
    • Improving the quality of your sleep - many people with alcohol withdrawal struggle with disrupted sleep but exercise can help with fatigue and insomnia.
    • Boosting your immune system which will help your body to heal and fight off illnesses faster. 
  • Helping you to fight off alcohol cravings so you’re less inclined to drink.

 

If you need support in getting active, we’re here to help! Contact us today to discover how we can help.

6. Learn new relaxation techniques

Many people turn to drink to cope with feelings of stress and anxiety. Whilst you can get a temporary sense of relief, it’s important to remember that alcohol will not solve any issues and can heighten your stress and anxiety in the long run. Try out new, healthy relaxation techniques to wind down, such as:

  • Breathing exercises - there are specific mindful breathing exercises that you can try which are designed to help you slow down your breathing and take deeper breaths to calm you down. These can be particularly helpful if you struggle with anxiety or feel yourself getting panicked. 
  • Yoga - Yoga is a type of mind and body exercise which is great for helping you to relax.
  • Meditation - meditation is a practice involving focusing on the mind and body, giving you more awareness of what you think and feels as well as helping you to have a healthier perspective on life. 
  • Light exercise such as a gentle stroll - going for a walk and getting some fresh air can really help you to clear your mind. As you’re walking, try to focus on the different senses; thinking about what you can hear, see and smell to really get your mind off of the unpleasant sensations you may be experiencing.

7. Keeping a diary

It can really help to keep a diary where you log how much alcohol you’ve been drinking (if any) and relevant details such as the time you drank them, how many units you think you had exactly and where you had them. It’s also important to make note of how you were feeling at the time and how you felt afterwards. By logging your feelings, thoughts and the situations you find yourself drinking in, you’ll be able to notice patterns of drinking and help yourself get to the bottom of the reasons behind your drinking behaviour. Read our blog on what causes alcoholism to find out more.

How long does it take to get over alcohol withdrawal?

The amount of time it takes to get over alcohol withdrawal varies from person to person, and it depends on a number of factors such as the amount of drink you were used to consuming. Withdrawal symptoms may last a matter of days, weeks or months as your body completely cleanses itself from alcoholic substances in your body. That said, you can help to speed up your recovery and decrease the severity of your symptoms by speaking with your doctor and discussing medication options.

Final thoughts

Here at LiveWell Dorset, we are committed to helping people living in Dorset to drink less, but if you or someone you know is suffering with alcoholism, we will be able to point you in the right direction so you can get the help you need. You can also read our advice on how to help an alcoholic if you’re worried about a loved-one’s relationship with alcohol.

 You can get in touch with us to speak to a member of our friendly team or register for our services here.

Bernie

It's time for me to get my health in order

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How does this work?

The tailored approach LiveWell Dorset uses to come up with solutions to the things that are stopping us achieving our goals, is based upon work done by University College London developing the COM-B model of behaviour change. In this model, all behaviour is influenced by understanding a person’s capability to change, their opportunity to change and their motivation to change. By understanding which of these is the biggest barrier to change, we can tailor support accordingly. This model of behaviour change is at the centre of the support we offer, online and in person.

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