Those who have no experience of alcohol addiction or withdrawal may have seen images from television programmes or movies where a character is going through cold turkey and is suffering dramatically after quitting alcohol. Most people are of the opinion that detox from alcohol is a traumatic experience, but one that is over within a few days. The reality is quite different.
It is true that alcohol detox can be unpleasant, but the most severe symptoms can usually be prevented under the right circumstances. Detoxing in a medically supervised facility means having access to medical care and support throughout the process and, in many instances, medication can be prescribed to make the patient more comfortable.
There is also a misconception that withdrawal symptoms last for a few days and then disappear forever. In truth, withdrawal symptoms can last for a long time; some people still experience some symptoms up to two years after quitting; these are known as post-acute withdrawal symptoms (PAWS).
Those who are in recovery from alcohol addiction tend to experience withdrawal symptoms in two stages. Most recovering alcoholics will experience acute withdrawal symptoms that will last for a few weeks and include symptoms such as shaking, sweating, restlessness, mood swings and anxiety. However, PAWS last for longer but tend to be less severe. These symptoms are usually of a psychological nature rather than a physical one and can include memory problems, lack of concentration, sleep problems, fuzzy thinking, repetitive thinking, depression, anxiety, lack of motivation, co-ordination problems, stress, cravings, fatigue and uncontrollable emotions. Recovery alcoholics often experience feelings of guilt and may find it difficult to get enjoyment from anything. The affected individual may develop OCD and have problems relating to others.
Why PAWS Can Be Dangerous
Recovering alcoholics are always at risk of relapse and most will have been taught how to recognise triggers and temptations and how to avoid them. Nevertheless, those who experience PAWS will be at greater risk of relapsing because they may feel that sober life is not what they expected.
If they continue to experience withdrawal symptoms up to one or two years after quitting, they could feel as though they are justified in going back to the days when they used alcohol as a crutch. They will begin to romanticise the days when they were drinking and will convince themselves that they were better off when they were drinking and that life was more enjoyable. If they find sobriety to be unsatisfying and unfulfilling, they are much more likely to relapse.
Some recovering alcoholics use the fact that their sobriety is unfulfilling as an excuse to put in as little effort as possible. Although they do not return to drinking and are sober, they will begin to act in the same manner as they did when they were under the influence; this is known as dry drunk syndrome.
Why Do Some People Develop PAWS?
Not every recovering alcoholic will develop PAWS; those who do tend to have had very severe alcohol addictions whereby it takes their body much longer to learn to function without this substance. Long-term alcoholics are often deprived of a number of nutritional benefits as many of them get most of their calories from alcohol. They tend to survive on alcohol and unhealthy junk food and, until their body has addressed these nutritional deficiencies, they will continue to experience withdrawal symptoms.
It is important that those with PAWS adopt a healthy diet and exercise programme during recovery, as this can help immensely. Exercise is good for mental and physical health, and a healthy diet will help to address any deficiencies. A doctor may advise a regimen of vitamin and mineral supplements, too.