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Understanding Alcohol Withdrawal: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

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Recovery is something you have to work on every single day, and it’s something that doesn’t get a day off.

Making a healthier choice to slow down or stop drinking for a period after battling an alcohol addiction is brave. However, breaking free from alcohol dependence is no easy task. We don’t just “turn it off” because the body and brain will build a physical dependence, while that “inside” part of us that wants what it wants, when it wants it, is evidence of a mental or psychological dependence on the substance. 

The body can react badly, dangerously so, to the absence of alcohol during withdrawal from the substance. The risk of stroke, seizure, and dangerous blood pressure changes are just a few of the more dangerous side effects of stopping without medical supervision and support. Knowing what to expect during withdrawal can help with a safe detox and long-lasting success in your own version of recovery.

What Is Alcohol Withdrawal?

Alcohol withdrawal is a condition that requires professional medical attention, as it can be dangerous.

Definition and Overview

Alcohol withdrawal occurs when someone with an addiction abruptly cuts out alcohol. Removing or reducing alcohol from the body, which became dependent on it, can trigger distressing physical symptoms. Because of alcohol’s effect on the brain, sudden withdrawal can also impact psychological function.

Common Symptoms

The severity of alcohol withdrawal symptoms can range from mild to life-threatening. Typically, these symptoms begin within 6-24 hours after the last drink. Common symptoms include:

  • Anxiety 
  • Irritability
  • Mood swings
  • Nausea/Vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Tremors and shakiness
  • Sweating 
  • Elevated heart rate
  • Insomnia
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches and muscle aches
  • Seizures (in severe cases)

Causes of Alcohol Withdrawal

The brain quickly adapts to alcohol’s presence when the substance is abused. This adaptation changes the natural chemical production and creates an unbalanced state for one’s neurotransmitters. Once alcohol is rapidly removed, it can cause an overstimulation in the nervous system. This causes withdrawal symptoms.

The more severe the addiction, the more significant these imbalances and symptoms become. The severity of dependency isn’t simply tied to how much is consumed since the liver and kidneys diminish function when overstressed by taking care of alcohol in the system. This impacts the amount of alcohol needed to affect us in significant ways.

How Alcohol Affects the Brain

Alcohol increases gamma-aminobutyric (GABA). Because alcohol is a depressant, this change can slow brain activity. The brain compensates by decreasing its organic GABA production and increasing levels of excitatory neurotransmitters.

Here’s a breakdown of how sudden shifts in alcohol consumption for those with an addiction can lead to withdrawal symptoms:

  • Glutamate: Tremors, insomnia, and even seizures can occur when glutamate, an excitatory neurotransmitter, elevates.
  • GABA: An increased heart rate and nausea are common when this relaxation-promoting neurotransmitter depletes.
  • Other Neurotransmitters: Dopamine and serotonin usually regulate mood, sleep, and stress responses. Disruptions in their levels can lead to symptoms like anxiety and irritability.

Risk Factors for Severe Withdrawal

Anyone with an alcohol dependency can experience withdrawal. However, certain factors can increase the risk of severe symptoms. These include:

  • Length of Addiction: If someone has battled their alcohol addiction for a long time, there’s a high chance of a more dangerous withdrawal.
  • Previous Withdrawals: The more withdrawals someone has, the more likely the next one will be more severe.
  • Co-Occurring Health Conditions: Pre-existing conditions like depression or chronic pain can worsen symptoms.
  • Age: Older adults may be more susceptible to severe withdrawal due to metabolic changes and general health.
  • Genetics: Someone can have a predisposition for more difficult symptoms due to their genetic makeup.

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Managing Anxiety During Alcohol Withdrawal

Anxiety is very common with alcohol withdrawal. As alcohol depresses the central nervous system, its removal can cause overstimulation in the brain. This overstimulation can manifest as nervousness, restlessness, worry, and dread. With withdrawal-induced anxiety, the detox process can often be even more overwhelming.

While professional medical support is crucial, self-care techniques can be useful. With the proper coping mechanisms, individuals can find relief from crushing withdrawal-related anxiety. Before this, it’s just as important to understand how to notice symptoms in yourself or a loved one.

Recognizing Anxiety Symptoms

Anxiety caused by withdrawal can materialize in various ways, including:

  • Restlessness and feeling on edge
  • Rapid heartbeat and sweating
  • Concentration problems
  • Irritability and mood swings
  • Constant worry or fear
  • Insomnia or disrupted sleep patterns

Effective Coping Strategies

Alcohol withdrawal can feel like an unbeatable mission. Luckily, there are strategies to help manage the anxiety it causes and facilitate calmness:

  • Relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing and meditation
  • Light exercises, like walking or yoga
  • Hydration and balanced eating
  • Distracting activities, like reading or listening to music
  • Support from loved ones or support groups
  • Medications or therapy under strict medical supervision (in some cases)

Treatment Options for Alcohol Withdrawal

Attempting to detox from alcohol alone is not advised. It can be risky and increases the risk of severe, possibly fatal complications, due to the drastic changes it can have on the brain and nervous system. Instead, it’s best to seek professional support from an accredited addiction treatment facility, like Breathe Life Healing Centers. This way, you can feel assured that your withdrawal will be safe.

Medical Detox Programs

Medical detox programs provide a safe and monitored space for individuals to go through the withdrawal process. These programs involve 24/7 supervision by medical staff. This ensures safe medicine administration to ease symptoms and prioritizes individualized treatment.

At Breathe, our alcohol detox in Los Angeles offers comprehensive care during this critical initial stage of recovery. This way, you or your loved one has a solid foundation on which to build the next step in addiction treatment.

Inpatient vs. Outpatient Treatment

After completing a medical detox, inpatient (residential) or outpatient treatment programs are common. Inpatient programs offer a more structured environment with around-the-clock support. Outpatient programs allow individuals to live at home and attend treatment sessions in the daytime or evenings. Residential care is usually 90 days to start, whereas outpatient is about three times weekly.

At Breathe, we offer levels of care that range from residential programs to outpatient addiction services. Which treatment program an individual starts depends on specific needs and circumstances. No matter the level, we focus on holistic care to ensure overall growth and wellness.

Medications Used in Treatment

Medications used during alcohol withdrawal treatment can help with symptoms and prevent complications. This option requires professional medical guidance suited to your specific case. Examples of medication used are:

  • Benzodiazepines (Librium, Valium) reduce seizure risk and manage anxiety and insomnia.
  • Anti-seizure medications (Gabapentin, Topiramate) can prevent seizures.
  • Anti-nausea medications (Zofran) can manage nausea and vomiting.
  • Nutritional supplements can replenish depleted vitamins and minerals in the body.

Preventing Delirium Tremens (DTs)

Delirium tremens (DTs) is a more extreme form of alcohol withdrawal that requires emergency treatment. In a specialized detox facility, patients receive proper medical management. This ensures adequate hydration, nourishment, and monitoring. With safe detoxification, the risk of developing DTs can be reduced.

Signs and Symptoms of DTs

DTs are severe and even deadly, especially for those with an extensive history of heavy drinking. Signs and symptoms of DTs include:

  • Extreme mental confusion and disorientation
  • Hallucinations (visual, auditory, or tactile)
  • Severe agitation and restlessness
  • Fever and excessive sweating
  • Unstable cardiovascular activity and high blood pressure
  • Seizures

Steps to Prevent DTs

The best approach to DT prevention is seeking professional medical help. Steps that can help reduce the risk of DTs include:

1. Enter a medical detox program with 24/7 monitoring and supervision

2. Follow all prescribed medications and treatment protocols

3. Stay hydrated and maintain proper nutrition

4. Avoid any further alcohol consumption

5. Get immediate medical attention if DT symptoms develop

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Resources and Support

Overcoming alcohol addiction and navigating withdrawal can feel unbearably isolating. Thankfully, it doesn’t have to be. At Breathe, we offer comprehensive resources to help individuals and their loved ones through recovery.

Support Groups and Therapy

Support groups can encourage those in recovery to share challenges around their addictions. Sometimes just being in a room with others who can sympathize with your experience makes it easier. As an LGBT-certified facility, Breathe ensures a space for individuals to heal without fear of judgment.

Our Dual Diagnosis Treatment for co-occurring mental health conditions makes withdrawal more manageable. Its group sessions can help with anxiety, depression, and other alcohol withdrawal issues. With our experienced therapists, each individual receives tailored care that involves evidence-based techniques. For instance, treatment incorporates dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), which can promote long-term wellness.

Online Resources and Educational Materials

For those seeking additional information, reputable online materials are abundant. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) can provide insight into alcohol use disorder (AUD). The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) national hotline is also handy for emergencies: 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

Breathe offers virtual treatment for individuals transitioning from detox to more extensive care. This makes educational workshops and therapies accessible even to those who can’t attend in-person sessions. BreatheOUT, our alumni support network, provides resources to connect those recovering from addiction. This includes podcasts, weekly meetings, and other informative resources.

Getting Help

Alcohol withdrawal can be a major hurdle in addiction recovery. Withdrawal challenges and dangers are best managed with professional, non-judgmental guidance. At Breathe Life Healing Centers, we understand that alcohol withdrawal can be difficult. Therefore, our dedicated team ensures compassionate support throughout the process.

Whether you or your loved one is ready to start recovery, we can help. Our team can walk you through the withdrawal and tailor your treatment program. There’s no shame in seeking guidance — Contact us today for immediate assistance and let’s take the first step to sobriety. Your alcohol-free future awaits.

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