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What Does Alcohol Withdrawal Feel Like?

I didn't realize I was going through withdrawal at the time, but now I recognize the symptoms. Here's what alcohol withdrawal felt like for me.

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In this article

While this post includes research about alcohol withdrawal syndrome, the personal descriptions reflect my own experience. Yours may be different.

During gaps in my drinking, I didn’t realize I was experiencing withdrawal

During my period of active drinking, I often experienced what I can now, in retrospect, recognize were withdrawal symptoms. I didn’t understand that at the time. Actually, I don’t think I really knew that alcohol even caused withdrawal symptoms at that time. But it does, and I definitely had some of them.

Withdrawal symptoms from alcohol can begin within 6-8 hours after the last drink, especially for people who drink regularly and heavily, like I did. That means that if I stopped drinking at midnight, I might manifest symptoms by the time I got up in the morning.

My hands would shake terribly, but I told myself I had low blood sugar. It wasn’t a little twitch; it was a very noticeable tremor that made it hard to write or type. I would sweat profusely, to the point that some acquaintances suggested I might be going through early menopause (I was in my mid-30s). My heart would race in my chest, but I shrugged it off as a symptom of anxiety … which I also had, and which is another symptom of alcohol withdrawal. I was miserably nauseous nearly constantly, but I thought that was a normal “hangover” feeling.

Altogether, I felt pretty terrible any time I went more than a few hours without a drink. With clear sight, I can look back and see that this was a huge red flag that I was drinking way too much and too often. But during that time period, I just took my symptoms as an indication that I needed another drink (“the hair of the dog that bit”).

I stopped drinking cold turkey, and this is what it felt like to me

When I stopped drinking, I did not do it safely. I say this as a warning so that other people can take better precautions. I got lucky, but not everyone does. It is strongly recommended that people who drink heavily and regularly talk to a healthcare provider before detoxing. They may prescribe medications that can ease your symptoms and support you in not drinking, may recommend weaning off instead of stopping alcohol consumption abruptly, or may suggest detoxing under supervision. They will very likely recommend having someone stay with you to be sure that you’re okay and to call for help if necessary.

I didn’t do any of those safe, smart things. I went from consuming approximately 34 standard drinks per day to consuming zero. I want to be very clear that I’m not recommending this. I’m just sharing my personal experience.

I felt like I was going crazy at first, with my mood swinging wildly. I spent my whole first sober night on the phone to crisis help lines because I hadn’t allowed myself to feel emotions without numbing them in years, and I didn’t know how to cope. I was experiencing all of my “normal” withdrawal symptoms—shaking hands, cold sweats, racing heart, anxiety, nausea—as well as insomnia, irritability, and a terrible headache. This time I did not take a drink to stave off the symptoms, and by the next night my tremors and nausea had faded. By a few days later, the headache and sweating passed, as well. It took a little longer for the insomnia and anxiety.

Why does quitting alcohol cause withdrawal symptoms?

First of all, know that not everyone experiences withdrawal symptoms. Some people—even those who drink heavily—may not have any discomfort. Others experience it like I did, and still others have much more severe symptoms. It’s not possible to predict how an individual will react to stopping or even significantly cutting back on alcohol consumption. As a general rule of thumb, people who drink more heavily and for a longer period of time are more likely to go through withdrawal. But nothing is definite.

A main cause of alcohol withdrawal is the impact of alcohol on the brain. We have neurotransmitters (natural chemicals) that pass messages in our brains by being taken up by the right receptors. Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant that interferes with these processes, suppressing some kinds of brain activity. Our central nervous system works hard to keep us functioning despite this disruption, seeking to counteract the depressant (alcohol). Then, when we stop drinking, our central nervous system can’t immediately correct for that depressant no longer being present. It takes a while for it to get back into balance. The out-of-balance brain chemistry during this time leads to many withdrawal symptoms.

What the research says: Common withdrawal symptoms

Common withdrawal symptoms are both physical and mental. They include:

  • tremors/shaking
  • high blood pressure
  • nausea/vomiting
  • headache
  • an increased heart rate
  • insomnia
  • sweating
  • anxiety
  • irritability
  • confusion
  • nightmares

What the research says: Rare withdrawal symptoms

There are also more rare symptoms that can be pretty scary. They can occur even without any of the symptoms above being present. These symptoms include:

  • seizures
  • hallucinations (seeing, hearing, or feeling things that are not there)

What the research says: Delirium tremens (DTs)

A small percentage of people who experience alcohol withdrawal syndrome (about 5%) also go through delirium tremens (DTs).

  • extreme confusion/agitation
  • hallucinations (physical sensations, hearing this, or seeing things that aren’t there)
  • rapid heart rate
  • rapid breathing
  • high blood pressure
  • fever
  • seizures
  • excessive sweating

Of the people who experience DTs (which is a small percentage) between 5%-25% do not survive. So if you imagine 1,000 heavy drinkers suddenly quitting alcohol, about 50 of them might go through DTs. Of those, as few as 2 or as many as 12 might die. I don’t say this to scare you, but to emphasize that it is wise to have support when you’re detoxing—if not a healthcare provider, then at least a friend or loved one who could call for help if necessary.

I don’t have to go through withdrawal anymore

I sympathize with people who are worried about going through withdrawal when they quit drinking. But with the help of a healthcare provider, your withdrawal doesn’t have to be so rough. There are options that can help. And again, when I take an honest look back at my own drinking, I spent a lot of time in a constant cycle of withdrawal. Since quitting, I only had to go through it one last time, instead of over and over. And now here I am, in recovery, not having experienced it in ten whole years.

That’s what I want for everyone who is ready to stop drinking: the chance to look back with a clear mind and the knowledge that they don’t have to go through that anymore.

Alaine Sepulveda is a content strategist in recovery from alcohol. She believes that engaging people and sharing stories with them allows us to spread knowledge, and to help others in the path to recovery. She holds an MA in Communication Studies from New Mexico State University.

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