Oct 18

The Stages of Quitting Alcohol

Are There Distinct Stages when Giving Up Alcohol?

Stages of giving up alcoholSome of the most common Google search terms which brings visitors to this site are “stages of quitting drinking”, “stages of quitting alcohol” and “stages of giving up alcohol”.

Now although there is a section on this site dedicated to these very questions, I thought I would spend a bit of time today to explore this area in a bit more detail, since clearly this is something that many people are concerned about when considering giving up alcohol themselves.

The fact that people are asking questions about “stages” tells me that there is a general recognition that giving up alcohol is not just a singular event, but a process and as such this leads to the question of “What does this process look like, and what can I expect to experience as I go through this process?”

The Stages of Quitting Alcohol

For the drinker to be successful in quitting alcohol for the long term it is important to treat each of these stages as discrete and separate entities, since each will bring their own unique challenges, as well as their own inherent risks in terms of relapse triggers and resistance to change.

In general terms you can think of the process in 3 distinct phases:

  • The initial phase where you go from heavy and prolonged drinking to totally quitting alcohol – sometimes called the detox or withdrawal period,
  • The phase where you physically and psychologically recover and adjust from the damage caused by the toxic effects that alcohol has wreaked on your body and mind over time,
  • And finally the post recovery period where you adjust to a life free from alcohol and begin to rebuild the many areas of your life which you neglected, damaged or even destroyed during your drinking years.

Overview of the 3 Stages of Quitting Alcohol

1. Detox or Withdrawal Phase


Paradoxically, this is often seen as both the easiest and most difficult phase in giving up alcohol. Easy in the sense that it is relatively short lived, in that it generally takes around 7 to 10 days to remove all traces of alcohol from the body, once the last drink has been taken, so in terms of physical withdrawal from alcohol, this period is over relatively quickly.

Difficult, however because if you have been drinking heavily or frequently for a sustained period of time your body will have become chemically dependent on alcohol, and will experience a wide range of pretty unpleasant physical and psychological withdrawal symptoms when the supply of alcohol is suddenly cut off.

The difficulty arises from the fact that a return to drinking at any time during this detox period will immediately and effectively alleviate all these symptoms.

During our initial attempts to quit alcohol it is easy for this cycle to perpetuate as we drink to alleviate the symptoms, only to postpone and delay the onset until the next morning.

This can also be a time of major disorientation and mental instability as you enter the gaping chasm left by the removal of alcohol from your day to day routine (consisting mainly of thoughts about alcohol or actually drinking alcohol). The thoughts and feelings you experience during this period can seem overwhelming at first, making you want to withdraw from human contact, and feeling distinctly awkward when forced to communicate “normally” in social or business situations.

The best survival strategy during this phase: Batten down the hatches and weather the storm!


Stages of giving up alcohol

Note: There are now a number of non-prescription herbal remedies available which are proven to reduce cravings, help manage withdrawal symptoms and even provide hangover relief.

Whilst we don’t advocate or condone using these supplements to support a hard drinking lifestyle, they can provide support and relief during the detox and withdrawal period, helping to alleviate the worst of the cravings and withdrawal symptoms.

Search Amazon for more details on these supplements and to see what’s currently available to buy.


2. Recovery Phase


Stages of giving up alcoholThis can be a period of relative calm and quiet optimism if you can keep your thoughts on creating a positive and more stable and balanced future, without the need to rely on alcohol. As you learn to rebuild areas of your life which you may have neglected during your drinking years, you may feel a growing sense of fulfilment as your self-esteem begins to recover along with your physical health.

Generally speaking, the terrible memories of the pit you were in when totally consumed by alcohol will be a fresh enough memory to deter you from going back to the drink, and cravings can be minimised by careful relapse prevention planning.

Taking up regular exercise and looking after your diet is also a good move during this phase as this will also have a positive effect on your mood as well as boosting your self-esteem.

However, be warned that your new improved state of wellbeing is still very fragile during this period and old deep seated drinking triggers can still represent a very real danger in terms of relapsing and you should both be on your guard, and plan proactively to handle them as they arise.

For instance, any type of celebration, such as a Birthday party, Wedding, Works party. Etc. can easily ignite the craving and desire to throw yourself back into the pit again, and this will not come to you as a rational thought and the feelings it unleashes and can be very powerful and all consuming.

The best survival strategy during this phase: Stay fit and healthy and pay strict attention to your relapse prevention plan!


3. Post-Recovery Phase


Stages of giving up alcohol

At this stage life without alcohol has become a reality which to a large extent you no longer question.

If your recovery has gone well you will have redefined your self-image to that of someone who doesn’t need or have the desire to drink alcohol, and you recognise that to do so would be catastrophic to your ongoing recovery.

However, regardless of how well and strong you feel, it is imperative that you continue to focus on your ongoing self-development and pay strict attention to your relapse recovery plan, even though you may feel you no longer need it.

It is sad, but very easy to spot the recovering alcoholic who has stalled in their development – the so called “Dry Drunk”. They appear embittered with life, resentful that they are unable to drink like ‘normal’ people and deeply miserable and unhappy with their lot. In short, a relapse waiting to happen.

The best survival strategy during this phase: Repeat the mantra, “Recovery is a journey and not a destination.” Work on improving that journey every day of your life!


Stages of Giving Up Alcohol – The Holistic View

OK, to pull everything together, here is a model of change which ties together everything we’ve covered in the above 3 stages of giving up alcohol.

To make it clear, giving up alcohol is difficult, often painful, and always fraught with the risk of relapse. Simply put, when you are physically and psychologically addicted to alcohol, quitting requires a significant amount of change. And not just a single, one time change, but a series of interrelated and compounding changes as the former drinker moves through the 3 stages of quitting alcohol.

And each of these changes is actually a cycle, or series of steps in itself. Consider the following model of change, which is based on the work of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, where she described five stages of grief in her book “On Death And Dying”. These stages can also be used to represent the normal range of feelings people experience when dealing with change in their own lives, and in our case to the range of feelings they go through when giving up alcohol.


7 Step Cycle of Change

According to Kübler-Ross, all change involves loss at some level and the “Stages of Change” model has been used to understand people’s reactions to change for many decades.

As the model shows, the initial response to change is one of shock and denial and a refusal to accept that change is necessary. This is often seen in the very early days of attempts to quit drinking, where the drinker rationalises the catastrophic consequences of his drinking behaviour and blocks the stark reality of his situation, refusing to accept that change is necessary. This allows him to continue his drinking behaviour and carry on as before.

This mini-cycle can happen over and over again, perhaps triggered by an embarrassing or significant event where the drinker is forced momentarily to confront reality, but then rationalises the event after a day or so to enable him to continue as before. Generally speaking, you are more likely to get stuck in this phase if you are change resistant, and deep down you really don’t want to quit drinking.

If the drinker is determined to quit however, and successfully navigates the first 2 stages, then there comes a period of creeping awareness. An awareness that all is not well, and change really is necessary. When we realise that the change is real and will affect us, our denial usually turns to anger, frustration and confusion. We realise that change is necessary, but feel very uncomfortable about accepting it nonetheless, and become very fearful of the future.

Eventually though, perhaps after a period of isolation and personal reflection there comes a sense of acceptance. This can also be termed ‘rock bottom’ in an emotional sense, as we let go of old habits and behaviours and can experience a real sense of loss, including a loss of identity.

Interestingly though this phase can also trigger a sense of energy and excitement as you have finally accepted the decision to change, and finding a new path and a new identity can be seen as an exciting challenge rather than a loss.

Stages of giving up alcoholFinding this new path can be a bit of trial and error at first, and this is when the newly reformed non-drinker experiences the experimentation phase. This is where new coping skills and behaviours are developed – alternative ways of dealing with life’s challenges without resorting to alcohol as a default coping mechanism, and embracing the new reality of life without alcohol.

On this journey towards a new reality, it is normal to begin to evaluate your life as it was before the change occurred, and to try to make sense of the change.  This inevitably causes you to re-examine your view of yourself and the world around you and to look for new meaning – this is the searching phase.

Eventually, after much experimentation, practice and conscious behavioural change, the ex-drinker experiences a paradigm shift and the newly acquired skills, attitudes and behaviours become integrated into the norms of everyday life and the old drinking identity is finally left behind.


The Stages of Quitting Alcohol – A Summary

Of course, each individual will have their own experience of quitting alcohol, and no one experience can be said to define the typical process. However, most if not all cases will follow a general pattern as described above, so if you are contemplating taking on the challenge to quit alcohol yourself, then there are plenty of pointers and tips to help you prepare for that journey.

It probably won’t be an easy journey, but take heart from the knowledge that many others have trodden the path before you and have successfully managed to kick the drink permanently and have gone on to reclaim their lives and put their alcoholic past behind them.

And remember that relapse is often a necessary, if unwelcomed part of the recovery process – just make sure that any relapse doesn’t become a collapse.


Other Related Articles:

> The 3 Phases of Quitting





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