Making the decision to stop drinking is something to be incredibly proud of. Sobriety can enrich your personal relationships, provide numerous health benefits, and lead to meaningful self-discovery. Like any major transition, quitting alcohol takes time and determination. The first several days without alcohol can coincide with significant changes, which can be overwhelming at first. It’s important to remember that these experiences are part of the recovery process, and are signs that healing and relief are on the horizon. Before we dive into the early days of sobriety, let’s discuss how to safely get started on your journey.
What to do before you stop drinking
Prior to beginning your sobriety journey, it’s important to speak with a medical professional to ensure you have a plan to stop drinking safely. While anyone can achieve sobriety, quitting alcohol cold turkey can lead to alcohol withdrawal symptoms that can be dangerous or potentially life-threatening. These symptoms can include:
- Psychological symptoms
- Alcohol shakes and tremors
- And more
Your physician can go over your medical history, drinking habits, and risk factors in order to determine if a supervised alcohol detox is right for you, or if it’s safe to immediately proceed with online alcohol treatment or other sobriety support.
If you believe you are experiencing alcohol withdrawal syndrome, please contact your 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.
Another helpful step to take before you stop drinking is to prepare your environment and support system. Clearing all alcohol, drinking accessories, and any other potentially triggering items from your space is one of our top tips for early sobriety. Sharing your plan with loved ones, exploring alcohol treatment, and registering for support groups are also great ways to give your future self as much support as possible.
What to expect on the first day
The very first day of a sobriety journey might be full of excitement, nervousness, and many other emotions. Your mind might start racing far out into the future. Remember that all you need to focus on is the day itself. Taking it day-by-day, hour-by-hour, or even minute-by-minute can make you feel more in control.
It can also be helpful to predict what time of day may be most challenging for you, and come up with a detailed plan for that time. For many people, they’re most likely to experience alcohol cravings in the early evening. To distract yourself from potential cravings you can try an hour or two-long activity such as taking a yoga class, attending an alcohol support group, or seeing a movie in theaters.
Many people also report having trouble sleeping the first night without alcohol (and throughout the first week of sobriety.) If you’re seeking better sleep, it can be helpful to build a calming alcohol-free nighttime routine. We also recommend asking your physician about how to improve your overall sleep hygiene.
How to navigate the next 2-5 days
In the first several days of sobriety, it’s not uncommon to experience varying degrees of acute withdrawal symptoms, alcohol cravings, and heightened anxiety. It’s important to know that you will get through this, and these symptoms are nothing to be ashamed of. They are not permanent. To help you navigate this brief yet challenging stage, let’s discuss why these changes occur and how to safely manage them.
Turning a sobriety challenge into a lifestyle
If you experience acute withdrawal symptoms, it will likely be within the first week of reducing your alcohol consumption. Withdrawal symptoms can occur due to physical alcohol dependence. Alcohol is a depressant, which means it slows down the central nervous system. With repeated heavy drinking, the body and brain get used to the presence of alcohol, and the resulting slow-functioning nervous system. This is a risk factor for acute alcohol withdrawal.
Acute withdrawal symptoms can vary in severity, and regardless of your past drinking habits, it’s safest to connect with a healthcare provider before quitting alcohol cold turkey or significantly cutting back.
Acute alcohol withdrawal symptoms can include:
- Nausea or vomiting
- Mental fog
- Mood swings
- Fever or chills
Your healthcare provider can help you assess your risk of withdrawal, and provide tips and tools for managing these physical symptoms and psychological side effects. They will subside with time.
Another common experience in the early days of sobriety is intense alcohol cravings. If you’ve wondered “why do I crave alcohol?,” you’re not alone, and there’s a scientific explanation.
Drinking alcohol releases dopamine in your brain, otherwise known as the “feel-good hormone.” When you use alcohol to de-stress or reward yourself, your brain makes associations between alcohol intake and relief. With continued alcohol use, even just the thought of having an alcoholic drink can increase dopamine levels and usher in cravings. After an extended period of unhealthy alcohol consumption, the brain doesn’t just associate alcohol with pleasure, but begins to see it as a basic need for survival. This is what is often referred to as alcohol “dependence,” and is why alcohol cravings can feel so intense. When navigating alcohol dependence, intense cravings are signals that the body needs alcohol to retain its state of “normalcy.”
Fortunately, our brains are neuroplastic, which means they have an incredible capacity to heal and change. With time and support, the brain can reset to its natural dopamine balance and start to crave alcohol less and less.
In the meantime, cravings can cause significant discomfort and challenges throughout the alcohol recovery timeline. Wondering how to manage alcohol cravings? While there’s no one-size-fits-all solution for cravings, medication and therapy are clinically-proven to be effective tools to help manage them.
Medication to stop drinking:
Naltrexone is an FDA-approved medication that works to block the release of dopamine when consuming alcohol. As you continue taking it, the associations between alcohol and pleasure weaken in the brain. Because of this, naltrexone is proven to reduce the risk of returning to any drinking as well as return to heavy drinking.¹ If you’re interested in a medication assisted treatment program, you can speak to a physician via Monument to learn about what options best suit your needs and goals.
Sign up for a physician care plan
Behavioral changes can also play a significant role in reducing cravings. In alcohol therapy, a therapist specialized in treating substance use disorders can help you identify potential triggers, manage alcohol cravings, and establish healthier coping mechanisms. You can work with your therapist to create a plan for if and when cravings arise, and learn how to recommit to your goals if a setback occurs.
It may feel uncomfortable at first to ask for help and explore additional resources. Seeking support is a sign of strength and courage. This truth can become even more clear once you begin treatment and can take you far in making progress towards your goals.
There’s a physiological explanation as to why anxiety is so common in the first week of sobriety. You can read this article for a deeper understanding of why you feel anxious when you stop drinking. There are two primary reasons. The first one involves how alcohol acts as a sedative, and what happens when you remove that sedative.
The other potential reason is that you may have been using alcohol as a coping mechanism for pre-existing anxiety. Co-occuring alcohol use disorder and anxiety is incredibly common. Once you stop drinking, you may be confronted with underlying anxiety without the false relief of alcohol. Whether you feel anxious from quitting or have an anxiety disorder (or a combination of both), finding stress-relieving activities and resources can help manage anxiety.
These can include:
- Exploring mindfulness and meditation
- Practicing yoga
- Joining a support group
- Doing physical exercise
- Journaling about stressors
- Calling a loved one
- Engaging in alcohol therapy
With time, your brain will restore its natural moderation system and you will learn healthier coping mechanisms to help manage anxiety.
Other physiological changes
While everyone’s journey is unique, it’s also common to experience changes in digestion, emotions, and more.
Change in appetite and dehydration
It’s perfectly normal to experience changes in appetite in the first week of sobriety. Your body is likely feeling deprived of a substance it has grown to expect, and your appetite may fluctuate as your body and brain recover from past alcohol use. While this may be unsettling, it’s important to remember that it’s temporary. To feel better more quickly, it’s crucial to stay hydrated and eat nutritiously during the first several days of sobriety. Drinking lots of water and eating whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and proteins low in fat can help you feel more energetic and full. Ultimately, sobriety contributes to improved digestion, hydration, and physical fitness. It’s just around the corner.
Alcohol has a numbing quality that can subdue emotions in the short term, while ultimately intensifying them over time. If you’ve been consistently drinking, once you remove alcohol from your system, it’s possible you will feel a rush of the emotions you’ve been suppressing. While this can be really challenging at first, learning to process and manage emotions without alcohol is what will ultimately facilitate healing and growth.
The fear of failure and judgment can also be especially intense in early sobriety. A helpful way to process emotions is to share them with others who are navigating similar challenges. You can share in Monument’s 24/7 anonymous forum or one of our 40+ free therapist-moderated support groups each week. You are not alone.
Changes you might notice by day 6 and 7
Towards the end of one week sober from alcohol, it’s likely that you will see improvements to your sleep cycle, energy levels, mental clarity, anxiety levels, and overall well-being. You will also discover that without drinking, you have more time and money. You might return to old hobbies or discover new ones, and enjoy a boost in savings. Everybody’s journey is different, and if you don’t feel as many benefits after seven days, it doesn’t mean they aren’t going to develop. Everyone’s alcohol recovery timeline is different.
Many Monument members have shared that the first week of sobriety was one of the most difficult hurdles in their journey because of all the changes. They also describe it as the most hopeful. After one week without alcohol, you’ve proven to yourself that you can do hard things. You’ve discovered that incorporating self-care into your routine is obtainable, and given your body the time to start to regain its natural balance. One week sober is something to be incredibly proud of.
A look at the journey ahead
Recovery is a marathon, not a sprint. No victory is too small to celebrate, and no setback can erase your progress. In the coming weeks of sobriety, you’ll likely feel a mix of challenges and relief. You may experience Post-Acute Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms (PAWS), which is characterized by symptoms such as mood swings and anxiety. You will also discover additional benefits of sobriety, such as increased energy, mental clarity, and weight loss. There might even be a period of great elation and euphoria, which is often described as “the honeymoon phase.” Reading more about the overall alcohol recovery timeline can give you a better idea of what to expect during the first month, year, and beyond. And if thinking ahead is overwhelming, we get that! You don’t need to know where you’ll end up to make incredible strides.
Jonas DE, Amick HR, Feltner C, Bobashev G, Thomas K, Wines R, Kim MM, Shanahan E, Gass CE, Rowe CJ, Garbutt JC. Pharmacotherapy for adults with alcohol use disorders in outpatient settings: a systematic review and meta- analysis. JAMA. 2014 May 14;311(18):1889- 900. doi: 10.1001/jama.2014.3628. PMID: 24825644.
Important safety information:
Naltrexone has the capacity to cause hepatocellular injury (liver injury) when given in excessive doses. Naltrexone is contraindicated in acute hepatitis or liver failure, and its use for a patient with active liver disease must be carefully considered in light of its hepatotoxic effects.
In the treatment of alcohol dependence, adverse reactions include difficulty sleeping, anxiety, nervousness, abdominal pain/cramps, nausea and/or vomiting, low energy, joint and muscle pain, headache, dizziness, and somnolence. This is not a complete list of potential adverse events associated with naltrexone hydrochloride. Please see Full Prescribing Information for a complete list.