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The 3 Phases of Quitting

Quit Drinking – The Path to Recovery

When undertaking a program to quit drinking alcohol the recovery process can be generalised and separated into 3 distinct phases, with each of these phases having their own characteristic features in terms of the physical and psychological effects on the individual.

quit drinking phases

By understanding and preparing for each of these phases the drinker is more likely to be able to cope with the radical transformation that the process involves, and will have greater resolve to follow the process through to successful completion.

The 3 main phases are as follows:

  • The Withdrawal Phase
  • The “Honeymoon” period
  • The New Reality

Quit Drinking – The Withdrawal Phase

This is the starting phase of the process and it concerns the physical effects on the body of withdrawal from alcohol after you first quit drinking. This phase generally lasts around 7 to 10 days, depending upon the levels of chemical dependency your body has reached as a result of your previous drinking habits.

  • Essentially, 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 range of physical withdrawal symptoms when the supply of alcohol is cut off. When you suddenly quit drinking, going “cold turkey” will trigger these symptoms, and where the level of dependency is particularly chronic, the effects can be quite severe, or even life threatening.
  • Another factor in the severity of the symptoms is the number of times you have been through a withdrawal from alcohol previously. Through a process known as “Kindling”, each withdrawal leads to more severe withdrawal symptoms up to and including seizures.

This is why it is essential for any chronic drinker considering a “cold turkey” detox to always obtain medical advice before doing so.

That having been said, for the majority of drinkers who suddenly stop, the symptoms will not be any more severe than a mild dose of the flu, and although they may experience some discomfort the symptoms will not be life threatening. However, because a further dose of alcohol will, in most cases, immediately relieve these symptoms, it is incredibly hard during this period to resist the temptation to drink. The cravings experienced at this point are simply a result of the body telling the mind, “I need a drink!”

However, to repeat the advice above, if you are considering suddenly stopping after a prolonged period of heavy drinking, it is highly recommended that you see your doctor in the first instance.

There is a full section in much more detail on the withdrawal, or detox process, which can be found in the menu bar above, or by clicking here.

Quit Drinking – The Honeymoon Period

This is the period immediately following the physical withdrawal from alcohol, and can last for a few weeks to a few months, depending on the unique circumstances of each individual and the nature of the coping strategies they have put in place to support their goal of abstinence.

It only takes around 7 to 10 days for all traces of alcohol to be removed from the body, once the last drink has been taken, so in terms of physical withdrawal from alcohol, this period is relatively short. However, if the drinker has been severely neglecting their diet and has become malnourished or vitamin deficient it could take a little longer to restore good health, but nonetheless, the physical benefits of stopping will be felt relatively quickly.

If you have also put in place a healthy diet and exercise program, along with a range of other activities to replace your drinking habits you will most likely feel much better psychologically as well.

quit drinking - honeymoon phase

The “Honeymoon” Effect – a feeling of confidence and optimism

This is the “Honeymoon” effect – a feeling of confidence and optimism about your life and a feeling that you are once again in control. You may feel physically great for the first time in years, and may even experience a sense of euphoria, or an awakening in your life. During this phase you experience little or no cravings to drink, and feel totally committed to your goal of abstinence. At this point you may feel with great certainty that you will never take another drink again, and may experience a transformation in your thinking about alcohol, and your relationship with it.

Whilst it is great to be feeling this way about yourself – and you should endeavour to use these feelings to rebuild your self esteem – it is also important to recognise that in part these feelings are due to a rebound effect. Rather like holding down the suspension system on the front of your car – when you release the pressure the car will bounce a few times before settling at its steady state. The effect is the same when you quit drinking whereby your emotions, having been suppressed by alcohol for a long period of time, will move rapidly in the opposite direction when released – overshooting the normal set point – before settling into a steady state once again.

The main reason to be aware of this effect is simply to avoid complacency or over-confidence in the early stages of recovery, and to be on your guard should your emotions start to dip once more. The key during this stage is to stick religiously to the strategy that has got you sober, and kept you sober up to this point, and not to allow your feelings of self confidence and optimism to lead you to believe that the actions you are taking are no longer necessary.

Quit Drinking – The New Reality

Eventually, if all goes well with your strategy, you will reach a point where life gets pretty much back to normal. That is, being sober is no longer a novelty for you and it starts to become your habitual way of thinking and being. You have managed to rebalance your life so that alcohol is no longer a consideration for you and you are confident that you can cope with any relapse triggers that you encounter, such as social events, celebrations and the like.

However, life is life, which means that it brings with it the inevitable ups and downs. For many ex-drinkers this can come as a bit of a shock, as there is often an unconscious expectation that by quitting drinking, they are thereby solving all their problems in life.

To then discover that actually, life is still a bitch from time to time, this can be difficult to reconcile. Added to this they now have to face the fact that as well as having problems to deal with they now have to do it without the aid of alcohol.

And even if we don’t have major problems to deal with, once the euphoria of the Honeymoon period has worn off we come to realise that yes, life can be boring at times. And we can get fed up, and angry, and hurt, and upset, and experience all the other negative emotions that are part of being human. But again, because we expected that by quitting alcohol we would somehow remove all these problems and feelings, they can knock us out of our stable equilibrium if we let them.

It is at times like this that we can start to question whether giving up drinking was worth it, or we start to glamorise our memories of the good times we had when drinking and forgetting about the dreadful feelings of despair we had whilst hooked on alcohol.

But this is our new reality – the reality of life without drinking.

  • What we are learning to do through this stage is to develop new and alternative coping strategies for dealing with the inevitable ups and downs of life. These are life skills which we have never properly mastered in the past, since we always used alcohol as our default coping mechanism, even though this has proved to be ultimately unsuccessful.
  • This is also a stage with massive opportunities for personal growth and development as we learn new ways to adapt to our circumstances – with our minds clear of the numbing effects of alcohol. This is effectively the Maintenance phase in the Stages of Change model. We may be tested several times through this period as we face the various challenges that life throws up, perhaps facing them sober for the first time in our lives. But by learning to cope with the highs and lows without reverting to our old drinking habits, we are moving slowly but surely towards equilibrium and a stable pattern of recovery.

Bear in mind when comparing your own experiences to the phases described above that these are generalisations based upon reported experiences of others going through a similar process. This tends to suggest that there are similarities in experience which makes it legitimate to describe the process in terms of phases, whilst at the same time keeping in mind that every individual is unique, and as such individual experiences may differ.

Quit drinking - Recovery from alcoholHowever, the key point is that the recovery process is progressive and evolutionary in nature – although the phases may have different lengths or be repeated more than once, they do describe the transitionary nature of the process.

Ultimately recovery is not a linear process – it’s much more elastic than that, but at the same time it is still a process nonetheless.



Related Posts: The Stages of Quitting Alcohol


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