Fear of alcohol withdrawals is what keeps many from stopping drinking, and this fear often keeps alcoholics and those with an alcohol use disorder (AUD) from recovering from alcohol dependence. Why does this fear keep people from quitting alcohol, even when they realize that alcohol brings them nothing but heartache and want to quit?
To answer this, you need to understand what alcohol withdrawals feel like.
What Alcohol Withdrawal Nausea Feels Like
If you have ever had a bad hangover that causes you to throw up and feel nauseous, you know that it is similar to the feeling you get with a bad case of the flu or mild food poisoning, and yet is very different. The nauseous feeling you get with alcohol withdrawal seems to come from your spine, rather than your stomach, and is accompanied by an acidic feeling that spreads down the spine and seems to tickle the nerves in your extremities.
While most cases of nausea in alcohol withdrawals are usually fairly mild, some alcoholics – especially those that have underlying medical conditions or have damaged their gastrointestinal tract – suffer from severe and constant nausea during withdrawal.
What Alcohol Withdrawal Hallucinations Feels Like
Alcohol withdrawal hallucinations are a sign that you are suffering from more than acute withdrawal, and could be entering the delirium tremens (DTs) phase of withdrawal. If you are suffering from DTs, it is a serious condition that requires immediate medical attention. At this point, medical detox needs to intervene and treat the conditions medically to decrease the hallucinations and risk for seizures.
Those that do suffer from alcohol withdrawal hallucinations will find that it is not the type of hallucinations caused by hallucinogenic drugs, rather it is more tactile and auditory (feeling and hearing). You have heard the stories of people with alcohol withdrawal feeling bugs crawling on their skin – actually, this is just the mind trying to come up with an explanation for why it is feeling itching, pain and numbness, and pins and needles across the skin. While there are not bugs crawling on your skin, the brain makes you believe this because it is the easiest answer to process at a time when confusion is causing the brain and body to go haywire.
This is what hallucinations feel like from alcohol withdrawal. Confusion. Auditory hallucinations are more common than sensory or auditory hallucinations, and these hallucinations are more of your mind trying to make sense of your racing thoughts. The brain – in its state of confusion – can disembody the voice in your head, and make it feel like this “voice” is being heard, rather than thought of. Again, this is just confusion. There really aren’t voices, your brain is just incorrectly processing your interior monologue and actual sounds you hear.
What Alcohol Withdrawal Headaches Feels Like
A very bad and persistent headache, almost bordering on a migraine, is the best way to describe alcohol withdrawal headaches. These headaches usually aren’t severe, in the sense that the pain is unbearable, but it is the fact that they continue for long periods of time that make them so unbearable. The fact that these headaches are happening at the worst possible time – when you are already feeling anxiety and other symptoms of alcohol withdrawal – makes you perceive the headaches as being even worse.
These headaches can be centered anywhere, behind the eyes, at the base of the neck, near the sinuses, or the frontal lobe. They can feel like stress or tension headaches, and are almost indiscernible from regular everyday headaches. Again, the persistence of these headaches is what really make this symptom bad, with headaches lasting days or weeks in some people.
Others find that the headaches come in waves, building in intensity for a few days before subsiding for weeks. It is not uncommon for headaches to accompany post-acute withdrawal syndrome, and can resurface 6 months or a year after quitting. Eventually, these headaches will go away completely.
Acute Alcohol Withdrawal: Paroxysmal Sweats
Have you ever woken up in the middle of the night drenched in sweat? Maybe it happened after drinking way too much earlier that night? Imagine getting a sudden attack of cold sweats, where you feel a chill throughout your body, but sweat begins pouring profusely across your skin. Called, “paroxysmal sweats,” sudden attacks of alternating cold and hot sweats are common in acute alcohol withdrawal.
You’ll know them when they hit, and they usually wash over you in waves – much like what happens when you have the flu. It is common to feel paroxysmal sweats in conjunction with waves of tremors – also an indicative sign of acute alcohol withdrawal.
Real Alcohol Withdrawal Stories
Communication between peers is a powerful way that people can help each other with even the most challenging of life’s responsibilities. Peer support groups have long been used in alcohol recovery, because it is one thing to go through the struggle of fighting addiction by yourself, but hearing another person’s stories of how they went through a similar situation can brighten your outlook on your own situation.
With alcohol addiction and withdrawal, hearing another recovering alcoholic’s stories of recovery can help you to make sense of your own struggle. We asked several people recovering from alcohol use disorders about their experiences with alcohol various withdrawal symptoms:
Alcohol Withdrawal Shakes
“My hands had been shaky for years, and it got worse the longer I drank. I thought that is what people meant when the talked about ‘alcohol shakes.’ It wasn’t until I tried quitting alcohol completely on my own that I found out what they [alcohol shakes] really were. My neck felt like it couldn’t support my neck, and kept dropping. My muscles would shake and twitch just trying to hold the weight of my own head. If I tried to stand up, the rest of the muscles in my body would twitch the same way. So, I just laid there on the couch for hours.”
“I don’t know why I thought soup would help me with the horrendous hangover I had. I microwaved myself some soup and tried to sip the broth, but my hand wouldn’t work. I couldn’t even hold a spoon. I always drank way too much in a single night, sometimes 12-16 beers in just a few hours. I guess I was a binge drinker, but never really considered myself an alcoholic or even that I had a drinking problem, because I could easily go a week or more without drinking. Seeing my hand shake and spill orange beef broth down my chin was the first time I considered that I might have done some real neurological damage to myself.”
Alcohol Withdrawal Anxiety
“The anxiety you get with alcohol withdrawals isn’t like any other type of anxiety I have ever felt. What I used to call a high anxiety day, can’t even compare to the level of anxiety I felt during alcohol withdrawal. It was like my body reached a point of anxiety way above what I thought was possible. I am 2 years sober now. I don’t want to ever feel anxiety that bad again.”
“I had been drinking at least one beer a day for over 10 years, but more like 8-10. I was actually able to taper down myself, without alcohol detox. It took me over a month to get down to 1 beer per day, and I was feeling so good, I figured I was ready to just stop drinking and go to zero drinks. I was ok for about a week and a half; what I would say was 6 on a 1-10 scale of anxiety. I knew that alcohol withdrawals usually are over with after 3 days, so I figured I was through the worst of it. Then, bam I felt my heart quiver and I got dizzy and felt like I was going to black out. My wife called the ambulance, because I told her I thought I was having a heart attack. It wasn’t a heart attack, it was a panic attack and heart palpitations from alcohol withdrawal.”
Alcohol Withdrawal Nightmares
“I actually didn’t go through a lot of withdrawal symptoms. Sure, I had some anxiety and didn’t feel great for about 2 weeks, but I got through alcohol detox easily, thanks to the medications they gave me. About a week after I finished detox, I wasn’t sleeping too well. It would take me forever to fall asleep, and when I finally did fall asleep, it would only last a few hours before I would snap back awake, full of energy. One of the times, I was having a dream about having to do something very difficult over and over again. I can’t remember the exact details of the dream, I just remember that the thought of doing something over and over again terrified me. I snapped back away after this dream, and it felt like something in me had popped, and I felt my body relax. After that, my sleep problems weren’t as bad and I started being able to fall asleep easier.”
Share Your Alcohol Withdrawal Stories
Human beings have the amazing power to make others feel better simply by talking and sharing stories, communicating, and understanding. When it comes to alcohol withdrawal, we know it is not going to be fun, but if you truly want to be free from alcohol controlling your life, you have to dig in and get through the first and most difficult part, detoxing from alcohol.
Those that have already gone through alcohol detox, and have followed through with their recover, can help others that are just beginning their journey into sobriety, offering your own insights into alcohol withdrawal. Share your story with others, and let them know that quitting is the right choice, alcohol detox can help to make the withdrawal symptoms easier to get through, and that a better life is waiting for them, after they get through the first and roughest patch.
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