How to Help Someone Going Through Withdrawal

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When a loved one is going through withdrawal, you may feel powerless. But there are things you can do to help!

Watching someone you care about—a friend, a family member, a significant other—struggling with addiction is hard. So it’s no surprise that you would be thrilled to hear that they are committed to quitting the substance that they’ve been using. On the heels of that happiness, though, you may feel afraid and uncertain when they begin to experience withdrawal symptoms. 

What is withdrawal anyway?

Withdrawal” is a catch-all term that is used to describe the physical and psychological symptoms that come when a person stops (or significantly decreases) their use of a mind-altering substance. How severe withdrawal is depends on several factors: what substance the person has been using, how much they’ve used, and how long they’ve been using it. A person who is detoxing can experience physical symptoms like body aches, diarrhea, vomiting, sweating, racing heart, and insomnia. They may also experience psychological symptoms like anxiety, depression, mood swings, and irritability. Top all of that off with cravings, and you have the recipe for a really tough time!  But there are some things that can make it less awful. 

Please be aware that this advice is not intended to replace medical care. Detoxing is hard. Withdrawal from alcohol, in particular, can be physically dangerous. If in doubt, please consult a doctor or a helpline. If the person you’re helping passes out, starts hallucinating, or has a seizure, call 911.

Physical ways to help someone going through withdrawal:

Have lots of drinks on hand. Staying hydrated is important all of the time, but it’s crucial during detox. Many of the physical symptoms of withdrawal can lead to dehydration, and it’s also likely that the person detoxing hasn’t been hydrating enough while using. Water is excellent, but if they crave variety and flavor, sports drinks and herbal teas are also good options. If you can find it, get some Pedialyte or the generic equivalent. Pedialyte, which was formulated for sick kids, has more electrolytes and less sugar than sports drinks, so it’s perfect for people going through withdrawal. 

Offer OTC remedies. There are over-the-counter meds that can help alleviate some of the physical symptoms the person who’s detoxing is suffering. Stomach remedies like TUMS and Pepto-Bismol can offer relief for diarrhea and stomach aches. Ibuprofen can help with the muscle aches. Dramamine is sold as motion-sickness medicine, and it can help soothe nausea, as can antihistamines like Benadryl. These won’t cure the physical symptoms, but mitigating the intensity can make a difference for the person going through them. 

Provide small, simple meals. The person in withdrawal may not feel like eating, but their body still needs fuel. Try to have basic, easy-to-eat things on hand, like fruit, yogurt, soup, and rice. Think mild, easily digestible comfort foods.

Create a comfy environment. Withdrawal is a bad time. Little comforts, like soft clothes, cozy blankets, readily available showers or baths, and favorite shows can make the misery of withdrawal a little more bearable. 

Mental/emotional ways to help someone going through withdrawal:

Try to stay patient and calm. When someone is detoxing, they may be irritable, anxious, agitated, and depressed. This can sometimes lead to unpleasant behavior and lashing out. Try to stay in a patient frame of mind. If possible, it can be helpful to have some other people on call, so that you can take turns providing support. 

Share resources about medically assisted treatment. The person who is detoxing may not be aware of the current options for medically assisted treatment for opioids and alcohol. You can direct them to information about it so that they can decide for themselves if that’s a route they would like to pursue

Keep hotline numbers on hand. It’s amazing that you are offering your support, but you’re only human! If you or the person going through withdrawal needs additional help, don’t be afraid to reach out. Here are some useful numbers:

  • SAMHSA National Helpline: 1-800-662-4357 – Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration provides information services and treatment referrals in English and Spanish. 
  • Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255 – The Lifeline will connect you with a trained crisis worker who can provide support and direct you to further resources. 
  • Crisis Text Line: 741741 – Connect with a trained crisis-support volunteer via text. They offer non-judgmental support and can refer you to additional resources if necessary.

The fact is, withdrawal is unpleasant. But it’s also temporary. Your support can make it more possible for your friend or loved one to make it through to the other side!

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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