Managing withdrawal

Taking a break from alcohol and other drugs during alert level 2? Great choice. You might experience withdrawal symptoms. This is your body and brain getting used to a new normal – without regular alcohol and other drugs.


CravingsCravings might happen when you are withdrawing. But there are techniques to help you get through it.

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Most people only experience mild withdrawal symptoms that pass in a few days. But if you’ve been using a lot or for a while, you might experience more uncomfortable symptoms and these can last for two weeks.

These tips will help you manage any withdrawal symptoms you experience. There are also links to some useful withdrawal handbooks at the bottom of the page.

Prepare

The more substances you have been using, the harder it is to predict the withdrawal symptoms that you are likely to experience. 

How long and intense your withdrawal is depends on things like:

  • The substances you have been using – What they are, how you used them (drinking, smoking, snorting, injecting), how much you used, how often, and for how long
  • How physically and mentally healthy you are
  • How supportive the people around you are
  • How the house that you are staying in is set up

Withdrawal symptoms are usually at their highest between two and four days since you last used. Some symptoms, such as low mood, poor sleep, and feeling fatigued, can last for a few weeks.

Think about these things to get prepared:

  • What will you tell the people you are staying with?
  • How can you stay away from people who are using alcohol and other drugs?
  • How can you feel more comfortable if you get unpleasant withdrawal symptoms?
  • Who can you speak to for support?

If you have been drinking large amounts of alcohol for a long time, call the Alcohol Drug Helpline (0800 787 797) to check if you need medical support to detox. 

Look out for these symptoms

Common withdrawal symptoms from alcohol and other drugs can be self-managed. These include:

  • Feeling restless, irritable, anxious or agitated
  • Having difficulty sleeping, sometimes with intense dreams or nightmares
  • Having difficulty concentrating or remembering things
  • Craving the substance you had used
  • Feeling sore
  • Feeling nauseous
  • Not feeling like eating

Less common withdrawal symptoms should be reviewed by a health professional. Call your doctor or the alcohol drug helpline if you experience any of these symptoms while withdrawing:

  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhoea
  • Sensitivity to sound, light, and touch
  • Low mood or suicidal thoughts
  • A fast or irregular hear beat
  • Heavy sweating or chills
  • Shakes or tremors

Call 111 for urgent medical help if you experience any of these symptoms while withdrawing from alcohol or other drugs:

  • High blood pressure
  • Hallucinations (seeing, feeling, hearing things that aren’t there)
  • Delusions and psychosis (believing things that aren’t true or not knowing what is true)
  • Seizures
  • Confusion
  • Disorientation
  • Loss of consciousness

Get the better of cravings

Cravings are when you feel a huge urge to use a substance. It is likely that you will have cravings while withdrawing.

Cravings tend to last for a few minutes. These actions can help you overcome them:

  • Plan your day. It’s easier to manage cravings when you know that you will be doing something different soon.
  • Delay making a decision about whether to use or not for a few minutes.
  • Distract yourself. Activities like singing make it harder for your brain to concentrate on the cravings.
  • Try breathing slower. Cravings ramp up your body and breathing slower calms it down, signalling to your body that there is no danger. 

Here is one technique:

  1. Sit or stand straight.
  2. Breathe slowly and steadily into your belly for three seconds.
  3. Hold your breath for two seconds.
  4. Purse your lips, and breathe out slowly and steadily for six seconds.
  5. Repeat.

Ask yourself these questions:

  1. Am I hungry?
  2. Am I angry?
  3. Am I lonely?
  4. Am I tired?

Try this technique to relax

Your body can get tense when you are withdrawing. Warm baths, hot water bottles, or stretching your muscles can help.

Here is another technique:

Get into a comfortable position and slow your breathing down.

Clench your hands into a fist.

Hold the fist for a few seconds and feel the warm tension. Then let it go and feel your hand muscles relax.

Next, tense other muscles. Hold the tension in each muscle for a few seconds and then let it go:

  1. Forearms
  2. Biceps
  3. Shoulders and neck
  4. Abdominal muscles
  5. Butt muscles
  6. Thighs
  7. Calves
  8. Feet
  9. Face

As you let go of the tension in your face, let your whole body feel relaxed. Try to close your eyes and picture your face smoothing out as it becomes more and more relaxed.

Drink water  

Keep well hydrated. This helps your body to recover and get rid of the toxins in your body.

Plan your day so you can sleep better at night

Disrupted sleep is normal when withdrawing. Try these things to help you sleep better at night:

  • Be physically active during the day.
  • Have one hour of winding down time before bed doing mindless activities like folding washing.
  • Get up at the same time every morning.
  • Avoid napping during the day.
  • Write down what’s on your mind to avoid those thoughts going round and round in your head.
  • Avoid coffee, caffeine, energy drinks and cigarettes before bed.
  • Try drinking hot drinks like chamomile tea or hot milk, which could help you to relax.
  • Have an extra blanket on the bed. You can easily pull it over you if you get cold or take it off if you feel hot. You might have hot and cold spells while withdrawing.

Additional resources

Download these guides from Matua Raki that can help you recognise and manage withdrawal symptoms.

  • Managing your own withdrawal. This booklet will help you understand what’s going on in withdrawal. It also includes suggestions about how to make it easier on yourself and the people you care for.
  • P**d Off.  If you are stopping regular methamphetamine use, this guide can help you to manage the withdrawal symptoms at home.