Alcohol Recovery Timeline — What to Expect

October 17, 2022

Quitting alcohol is one of the most life-changing experiences a person can go through, so here’s an alcohol recovery timeline to help you understand what you’re in for.

There are nearly infinite benefits socially, physically, and psychologically, but those benefits come at the cost of what can be a brutal recovery period.

Luckily, most of that cost is paid over just a few weeks, and the rewards last a lifetime.

As you’re recovering from alcohol, your body will ache, and your emotions will be on a rollercoaster as you return to your natural, fully sober state. 

Most people are familiar with alcohol withdrawals, but it’s the later portions of recovery that can often be the toughest when your mind is fighting for a neurochemical balance that allows you to fully function without alcohol.

Even though people’s experience recovering from alcohol will vary widely based on how severe the addiction is and how long they’ve been addicted, below is a timeline that offers a general guide for what to expect.

Phase 1: The Hangover

Yesterday you planned to have a couple of drinks, but as soon as you had a couple, you wanted a couple more, and before you knew it, you had completely lost control over your actions, and the night unraveled in spectacular fashion.

As you well know, the hangover is marked by nausea, severe headaches, and acute depression. However, with a little water and some ibuprofen, this stage will pass without much incident.

Just like in the past, you’ll be feeling the physical pain from your severely dehydrated body and the emotional pain from letting the alcohol control your thoughts and actions the night before. 

But unlike in the past, you’re now committed to making sure this is the last hangover you ever experience.

Phase 2: Beginnings of Withdrawal

On the second day, you may be feeling a little better than the first day, but if your alcohol abuse was severe enough, this will just be the beginning of the hard part.

Even though the headache is likely gone, you’ll still have a number of physical symptoms to contend with. Abnormally high heart rates, irritability, brain fog, and flu-like symptoms will be starting to settle in.

Right now, your body is used to alcohol settling these problems. Your brain has been dependent on alcohol for your dopamine release, to calm your nerves, and to otherwise make you feel “normal.” 

After you cut your body off from its alcohol supply, it’ll begin work to revamp your natural processes that used to be in charge of these things, and the transition will be uncomfortable, to say the least.

Phase 3: Severe Withdrawals

At this point, 3-7 days, you’ll still be experiencing severe flu-like symptoms. Your body temperature will be raised, you’ll be sweating, and vomiting. All of these will be working to further dehydrate your body, and you run the risk of developing seizures.

This stage is when DTs (delirium tremens) start to kick in. Severe tremors take over the entire body, hallucinations may occur, the heart is at its weakest point, and breathing comes shallow and difficult.

This is the point where alcohol withdrawals can turn fatal. It’s important to keep the body hydrated during these first few days, but it’s even more important to check yourself into a hospital or detox facility if symptoms continue to spiral.

Making it past this stage without turning to alcohol represents a major turning point where everything that comes after is far more manageable.

Phase 4: Mental and Physical Recovery 

It should be noted that once you’ve made it this far, approximately 7-10 days, you will notice that you’re no longer just surviving without alcohol, but that your body is starting to thrive.

One of the first true recoveries you’ll make on this journey comes in the form of sleep. Without the alcohol, which shoves your body into a deep sleep, you’ll be able to spend longer periods of time in REM sleep. 

REM (rapid eye movement) sleep is the part of your sleep cycle that is the most restorative, and you’ll start experiencing more and more of it after you’ve quit drinking. This will help lift the fatigue and brain fog that have been plaguing you since the start of your recovery.

On top of feeling like your old self, you’ll start looking like it again too. Skin restoration begins at this time as your body starts seeing the effects of proper hydration.

But it’s not all sunshine and rainbows in phase 4. Since your brain was almost exclusively dependent on alcohol for its dopamine release, this is where people can experience both anxiety and major depressive episodes.

Depression always feels like a cloud that will never leave. That’s why it’s important to understand that depression from alcohol detox is temporary. Your brain is simply relearning to produce and release dopamine on its own again, and it won’t be too long before it catches up.

In phase 4, cravings are still likely to be strong, and new, healthy coping mechanisms have not yet been developed, so you should limit exposure to circumstances that trigger those cravings. 

Phase 5: Developing Healthy Habits

After one month, your body is thriving, a number of mental hurdles have been cleared, and you’re starting to see just how great life can be without alcohol.

Depressive symptoms should be waning, but if they’re not, it’s important that you speak with a doctor about them so they can be treated accordingly. This might involve medications or adjustments to your daily routine.

Although some forms of depression can only be treated with medication, you should be participating in activities that can help clear you of your funk naturally. Exercise, spending time with friends and family, and eating healthy might be all that you need to feel better.

The cravings will likely still be there, and they may never go away fully. So you’ll still need to limit how much you’re exposed to triggering environments and create boundaries for yourself.

Over time, and maybe with a little help, you’ll develop healthy coping mechanisms to handle triggering circumstances and maintain your path to a much better future, totally free of alcohol.

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