When an individual has developed a substance use disorder or dependence on alcohol, stopping its use outright can be virtually impossible. On top of this, quitting immediately — or ‘cold turkey’ as many users and professionals call it — can be quite dangerous. Sometimes withdrawal symptoms are simply uncomfortable to deal with. Other times they can actually be fatal.
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Tapering Off Alcohol
Deciding on and following through with quitting drinking isn’t just about willpower. Many other factors go into play with these difficult and trying scenarios. Tolerance, dependence, social habits, setting, the biology of the individual, and more must all be taken into consideration. In order to avoid or reduce the impact of the abovementioned symptoms of withdrawal, users may choose to progressively taper off alcohol rather than quit abruptly.
Tapering off alcohol is a self-treatment strategy that has shown to be effective for some individuals. And, if there is any caveat to the method it is just that: what may work and be safe for one person may not be the case for everyone. Because it can be hazardous, it is always best to seek out professional care to craft a strategy customized to individual needs. Some treatment practices will include a benzodiazepine — sedative medications — regimen to replace the body’s alcohol needs.
Alcohol withdrawal occurs when neurotransmitters combating the effects of alcohol on the nervous system suddenly have nothing to counteract. Essentially, when an individual drinks, the brain amplifies its activity to counterbalance the depressive effect alcohol has on it. When that numbing sensation disappears entirely, the brain is left dangerously overstimulated. Insomnia, anxiety, and paranoia — the opposite effects of alcohol — are the expected results. Thus, a user will likely seek out alcohol again to rid themselves of the uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms. Tapering is seen as a sort of intermediary to quitting or continuing use; gradual detoxification over time.
How to Taper Off Alcohol
Once the choice is made to use tapering off alcohol as a harm-reducing approach towards recovery, the first course of action is to make a plan. Statistically speaking, the more effort put into initial preparation, the better chance the tactic will ultimately be successful. The definition of success may vary from person to person. Write down goals. Keep track in a journal or on a calendar. Reward milestones with newly formed, helpful habits. But perhaps most importantly, understand that setbacks happen and that progress takes time or may look different than imagined. It is all part of the process — and no one’s process is the same.
As the name implies, tapering requires incremental change. It all begins by reducing the number of drinks in a sitting, a day, a week, or whichever time frame works best. Tapering off alcohol is often a one-drink-at-a-time progression. Mixed drinks can be made with greater proportions of the mixer to alcohol content or replaced with non-alcoholic drinks to mimic the act of alcohol consumption. If nothing else, drink alternatives like water between drinks because hydration is essential for detox.
In addition to quantity, the specific type of alcohol needs to be considered. Hard liquors, for example, contain higher alcohol-by-volume measures than other beverages. It is recommended when attempting to taper off alcohol that an individual should substitute these stronger options for wine or beer — or at least hard liquor with a smaller proof. Finally, when determining how to taper off alcohol, one must always remember the importance of setting. Users should avoid places where recreational or binge drinking is likely to occur, such as clubs, sporting events, parties, and more. Such a conclusion comes down to personal discretion — nobody knows the people and places that create potentially negative consequences like the individual in question. This, of course, is easier said than done if drinking has become the crux of one’s social or romantic relationships. Experts advise surrounding oneself with positive influences whenever possible.
Choosing to taper off alcohol is an admirable decision and a step in the right direction. Still, it is also one that should not be taken lightly. As with many self-detox methods, the risks and rewards go hand in hand when attempting to overcome an alcohol substance use disorder. But, with a little prior knowledge on how to taper off alcohol, adequate planning, and professional consultation from a healthcare provider, it can certainly be done.
Common Withdrawal Symptoms
Alcohol withdrawal symptoms range in severity depending on how extensive the misuse behavior was. At it’s worst, alcohol withdrawal can kill upwards of 33 percent of those attempting to quit suddenly after chronic usage. This is a staggering number considering that many other drugs do not even have the possibility for lethal withdrawals. For this reason, experts advise that alcohol cessation be monitored safely with steady effort between oneself and a physician.
These symptoms are often categorized as mild, medium or severe, with each coming with its own associated challenges and risks. Such withdrawal side effects include:
- Mild Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms: The lowest level of alcohol withdrawal comes with various symptoms that are mostly uncomfortable. Profuse sweating, shaking, headaches and insomnia may appear after only a half-day without alcohol.
- Intermediate Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms: Up to two days after cutting back completely, users with more serious use disorders may exhibit similar but more intense effects. Additionally, hallucinations are reported to accompany some moderate withdrawals.
- Severe Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms: Users who display severe symptoms are in the greatest need of medical intervention. Fever, tremors, confusion and seizures are all likely outcomes. Heavy withdrawal can also lead to death.
Medical Disclaimer: The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.