So, you’ve made the decision to change your relationship with alcohol, and to get more out of life by drinking less. You should be incredibly proud of that. Now you might be asking yourself: What does that look like? How exactly will my life change? How long will it take? And those questions can be a lot to process.
While the most complete and accurate answers will ultimately come with time and experience, there are common patterns in the first year of sobriety or moderation that can help set expectations. You’ll find that what you’re experiencing is normal, and most likely, an indicator of progress towards treating alcohol dependency (even if it doesn’t feel that way yet).
What is the Timeline for Alcohol Recovery?
In general, experts recommend engaging in an alcohol recovery program for approximately one year. This is about how long it takes the body and mind to recover from the effects of alcohol, and for new habits and lifestyle changes to solidify. To arm you with information and encouragement, expert clinicians on the Monument platform have shared what their patients often experience on their journey, and how to get the most out of your own treatment or recovery program. Keep in mind that everyone’s experience with alcohol use disorder is unique and valid, and we encourage you to discuss your personal circumstances and goals with your Care Team for individualized advice.
What Are the States of Alcohol Recovery?
There are many possible stages of alcohol recovery. From acute alcohol withdrawal, to the ‘honeymoon phase,’ to post-acute withdrawal and beyond, individuals experience a range of physical and psychological changes throughout year one of sobriety. While everyone’s experience is different, this chart shares common phases of the alcohol treatment timeline. Read on to learn more about each phase.
|1 Week||You may experience sleep disturbances, alcohol cravings, heightened anxiety, and other acute alcohol withdrawal symptoms. Consult with a physician about how to safely cut back on drinking and explore your treatment options.|
|1 Month||You may experience post-acute withdrawal symptoms and uncomfortable feelings as your body and mind continue to recover from excessive alcohol use. Towards the end of this time, you may see significant improvements in sleep, mental clarity, and physical health as you continue with your treatment plan.|
|2-3 Months||Health and lifestyle benefits may present themselves more fully now. It’s important to engage in treatment during this time period to prevent setbacks and set the course for long term sobriety or moderation. Note: Post-acute withdrawal may last for several months, and will improve with time.|
|12 Months||This is the expert-recommended length of treatment. The body and mind have had time to heal from the effects of alcohol dependence and life without drinking feels more normal. Healthy habits are solidified.|
|Beyond||Keep the resources and treatment options that work for you, and reinforce goals with self-care and community support. Continue to embrace the many ways drinking less can give you more.|
Month 1: Why “The First 30 Days” Can Be Challenging
You may have heard before that “the first 30 days can be the hardest,” and experts tend to agree. During this time, the body and mind go through a substantial process of recovery. Here’s more information on alcohol withdrawal symptoms you may experience that make this an uncomfortable, yet really important time of recovery and reset.
Acute and Post-Acute Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms
First, it’s important to understand the signs of both acute and post-acute withdrawal. You can read more about both types of withdrawal symptoms here. Acute alcohol withdrawal can occur after an extended period of heavy binge drinking, and usually takes place within the first week of quitting alcohol. The acute alcohol withdrawal timeline and process looks different for everyone, and the symptoms can range from uncomfortable to potentially dangerous. These symptoms of acute alcohol withdrawal can include alcohol shakes, nausea, delirium tremens, hallucinations, and more.
If you believe you might be experiencing acute alcohol withdrawal, please contact your healthcare provider immediately and visit https://findtreatment.gov/ to find a location to get supervised alcohol detox near you. If this is a medical emergency, call 911.
It’s also possible to feel post-acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS), where psychological symptoms continue for weeks or months after you stop drinking alcohol. If you do experience post-acute withdrawal, it’s important to remember that what you’re going through is normal, and over time, the symptoms will subside. Both acute and post-acute withdrawal can be addressed safely with the right care. It’s important to connect with a physician to discuss the best path forward for you.
Disrupted Sleep and Nutrition
Loss of appetite is common in the early stages of changing your relationship with alcohol, and hydration is crucial to replenishing the body. Whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and proteins low in fat are all beneficial to boosting energy and feeling full on a sensitive stomach.
Moreover, if you’re taking naltrexone as part of your treatment program, it’s possible that you feel nausea in the early days of your prescription. While naltrexone is generally well tolerated, nausea and headaches are the most common side effects. You can check in with your physician about side effect management, and if possible, look to manage side effects for several weeks to experience the positive effects and weigh the side effects and benefits.
Difficulty getting long, restful sleep is also common in the early days of the alcohol recovery timeline. As your body adjusts to routines without alcohol, this will improve. We also suggest developing new nighttime rituals that calm your mind and body before bed. Journaling to release stressors or trying guided meditation are great places to start.
You might experience more anxiety than usual when you stop drinking alcohol for two key reasons. First, you may have had baseline anxiety that you were previously using alcohol to manage. Without alcohol, you’re feeling that anxiety in full force. While you might feel the urge to turn to alcohol in those moments of discomfort, you can get through them without drinking. Working with a licensed mental health therapist on new anxiety management techniques is a great way to build healthier habits while recovering from alcohol dependence.
The second reason you might feel more anxious is because quitting alcohol can physiologically cause short-term anxiety. The central nervous system includes a neurotransmitter system that moderates racing thoughts. When binge drinking or consuming alcohol in excess, your body gets used to alcohol moderating those thoughts, and your natural moderation system stops doing its work. When you stop drinking, you’re left without any natural or substance-induced moderation, which causes heightened anxiety, restlessness, and racing thoughts. This can be a significant challenge in the first month, but with time, your brain will restore your natural moderation system and your anxiety will lessen. To learn more about the relationship between alcohol and anxiety, read why you feel anxious when you quit drinking.
Transitioning Out Of The ‘Honeymoon Phase’
While feeling anxious and unsettled is common, some people also experience ‘the honeymoon effect’: a period of euphoria and elation soon after you stop drinking. During this time, you may get back in touch with your emotions, and experience a new sense of hope and enjoyment. This sensation can last days or weeks, and experts caution that the inevitable transition out of this state can be discouraging.
How can you most seamlessly move through the ‘honeymoon phase’? First, it’s helpful to recognize it for what it is. This can lessen the impact of when it passes. Second, savor the positive emotions and know that with the right treatment, dedication, and self-care, you will find a sustainable path complete with authentic joy. Creating a sustainable new lifestyle without or with less alcohol requires navigating both highs and lows. Growth happens in discomfort, and it’s important to recognize challenging moments as learning opportunities.
We know the ups and downs can be confusing, and may cause you to question who you really are without alcohol. However, you will arrive at the answer. Here’s a therapist’s advice on how to navigate the early recovery identity crisis. These challenges are natural in this period of rapid change, and you are not alone in navigating them.
Month 1: Expert Advice On Getting Through It
If you’re feeling discouraged in the first 30 days because you haven’t yet experienced the benefits of life without or with less alcohol, we understand. It can be frustrating, but it’s an incredibly common and necessary chapter in this journey towards alcohol recovery. You can and will get through it, and some relief is right around the corner. Here’s advice from clinicians about how to get through this challenging period.
Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a biopsychosocial condition, which means it’s affected by biological, social, and psychological influences. To treat AUD holistically, we have to look at addressing all of those components. Fortunately, research has proven that these tools can significantly increase your chances of reducing your alcohol consumption. In month one, clinicians recommend engaging in as many tools as you think can benefit you such as:
- Talking with a physician about medication to stop drinking that can help combat alcohol cravings
- Attending alcohol therapy with a licensed therapist that specializes in treating substance use disorders (like alcohol use disorder). Working with a therapist can help you establish goals, develop coping skills, and treat co-occurring conditions like depression and anxiety
- Attending therapist-moderated online alcohol support groups to get and give support from others navigating similar challenges involving alcohol dependency
- Talking with loved ones about your treatment plan and establishing your inner-network support system. (You can even invite them to Monument!)
- Developing new hobbies and rituals that help you honor your goals (like scheduling a yoga class right at 5pm!)
Not sure what makes sense for you? Join our free community to learn more about your options.
Month 2-3: Positive Effects Are A Sign To Keep Going
So, now you’re a couple months into treatment. That’s fantastic! Physicians and therapists agree that after the initial several weeks of recovering from excessive alcohol consumption, the body and mind begin to experience significant improvements in sleep, anxiety, physical fitness, mental clarity and other benefits of sobriety.
This time period, roughly 2-3 months into the alcohol recovery timeline, is pivotal according to clinicians. Though it may seem counterintuitive, positive effects are signals to stay with treatment, and continue to utilize your tools. If medication is part of your treatment plan, reduced alcohol cravings and a greater sense of control are signs that it is working. In therapy, feeling better equipped in your daily life shows that your new skills are developing. Now is the opportunity to go deeper, stay accountable, and work towards lasting change. Without seeing treatment through, even when you feel good, there’s a greater chance of experiencing setbacks.
Preventing relapse through self-care
This is why clinicians generally recommend utilizing medication and therapy for at least 12 months. It’s in that time that you can fully mentally, physically, and emotionally recover from an unhealthy relationship with alcohol, and build the resilience to confront any challenges or triggers that come your way. Our clinicians also report how much more effective treatment is when practiced consistently. Experts advise it takes about one year to fully form a new habit. It often takes going through each season, all the birthdays and weddings, and everything in between, to make not drinking alcohol feel normal.
In brief, we understand that feeling good after the first few months might seem like an appropriate time to pull back from your sobriety or moderation toolkit, but we encourage you to instead lean in. You will only continue to fortify your good habits and solidify your progress towards treating alcohol dependence.
And Beyond: Embracing Change In Your Journey
Your Care Team wants you to succeed, and is dedicated to supporting you in making the best decisions for yourself. As human beings, we are constantly undergoing changes, so our goals and alcohol recovery timeline will too. As time goes on, you and your therapist may decide to meet every other week instead of weekly. You and your physician may meet less frequently about your medication. Working with your Care Team will ensure your decisions are personalized and informed, and that you have resources at your fingertips whenever you need them.
Like other types of self care (working out, meditation, skincare, intuiting eating), finding sustainable habits that work for you is key. And while care can feel preventative, not responsive, it means you’re setting yourself up to confront life’s challenges as your most perseverant, present self.
How Long Does Alcohol Recovery Last?
The duration of alcohol recovery is unique to each individual. Physically, it typically takes about one year of sobriety for the body and mind to fully heal from the effects of alcohol. However, recovery can mean much more than a physical transformation. SAMHSA defines recovery as: “A process of change through which individuals improve their health and wellness, live a self-directed life, and strive to reach their full potential.” Some people might not identify as “in recovery” after completing alcohol treatment. Others may experience recovery as a process that takes place over several years, or view it as a lifelong journey.
Factors that Influence Alcohol Recovery Time
As you navigate the recovery timeline, there are certain factors that may impact your journey. Here are few of the elements that clinicians often observe playing a role in the recovery process:
Staying Engaged in Treatment and Community
The number one expert recommendation for making progress in recovery is to consistently engage with a treatment program and recovery community. Following your treatment plan and seeking ongoing accountability and encouragement from your support network can help you build upon your progress and stay motivated. Maintaining these commitments makes you more likely to achieve your goals.
Making Alcohol Less Accessible
It can make a significant difference to remove alcohol from your immediate environment as much as possible. If you have less accessibility to alcohol, you’ll have an easier time creating new lifestyle habits that don’t involve drinking. Conversely, the more readily available you can make replacement drinks (like building an alcohol-free cocktail bar), the more likely you are to choose these healthier alternatives.
Processing Your Triggers
In addition to learning how to say no to alcohol in social settings, the recovery process typically requires looking inward. Exploring triggers will help break down the reasons you wanted to drink in the first place, making your recovery more sustainable. Working with a specialized therapist in alcohol therapy can be especially helpful for identifying triggers, working through past traumas, and developing a plan for when triggers do arise.
Establishing Coping Skills and Self-Care Practices
If you used alcohol as a form of stress-relief in the past, it’s important to replace drinking with healthier forms of coping and self-care. Building coping skills can help you tackle cravings and challenges without drinking. Plus, self-care routines can help incorporate time for self-compassion, mindfulness, and rest into your journey.
Getting Started with Treatment
Remember that alcohol use disorder is a medical condition, with a medical solution. Seeking online alcohol treatment is an act of self-care, and something to be proud of. With a Care Team dedicated to you, your alcohol recovery timeline will begin to crystalize as you learn more about yourself and undergo enriching changes. With longer term sobriety or moderation, a profound sense of clarity will emerge. Not to mention, the lasting health benefits to the immune system, liver, blood pressure, mental health and much more.
And if today is as far ahead as you’re ready to look, that’s okay too. Each day holds new potential. You can visit the free Monument Community to hear from others about their experiences, and attend therapist-moderated support groups to check in with yourself and others. One day at a time, over time, can amount to incredible things.