How can I stop drinking?

Jessica Kennedy, Mental Health America

If you have been drinking significant amounts of alcohol regularly for a long period of time, do NOT attempt to stop drinking without first talking to a doctor. When you suddenly stop taking a drug (such as alcohol), your body goes through a process called detoxification, or “detox” for short. Detoxing from alcohol can kill you, even though it is rare. This is not a joke or an exaggeration.

A lot of people just try to stop drinking on their own, a technique known as “cold turkey.” This usually starts as a promise you make to yourself that you will stop drinking after you recognize you have a problem. It’s important to be really self-aware if you go down this path. You should identify the people, places, and things that are “triggers” for your drinking. Like maybe there are certain friends you always drink with at brunch—you may have to step away from them for a while. Or perhaps it’s hard for you to go out to dinner because you’re used to having a glass of wine or a cocktail at a restaurant. You’re probably going to be grumpy and agitated when you first start doing this. If you’ve been drinking a lot, you can have some really nasty physical symptoms too, like headaches or high blood pressure. There are people who have successfully quit drinking this way, but it can be lonely and frustrating.

Other people look to find support from their peers. The most common and well-known group of people who want to stop drinking is Alcoholics Anonymous, or AA. There are AA meetings in almost every town or city in the US, and if you’re in an area where there aren’t any, you can find groups online. AA is for people who are committed to sobriety, which is when you don’t drink anymore. The 12-step AA model is one of the most well-known, but there are other options out there, too, like SMART Recovery.

It’s also possible to get help from a professional in quitting. There are addiction counselors who can help you with this. In addition, there have been some breakthroughs recently in what we call “medication assisted treatment” for alcohol and drug use. There are FDA-approved medications that can help people control cravings and stay away from alcohol, similar to how there are drugs approved to help quit smoking.

If you feel like you are in really deep trouble, or you have tried some of the techniques above, you might consider hospitalization or rehab. You should expect a brief detox at either facility and then an inpatient stay of anywhere from seven to 30 days initially. Hospitals and rehabs provide very controlled environments where the temptation of drinking is removed. Your day is usually filled with structure like group therapy around different topics or activities. Sometimes, if your clinical team decides it’s appropriate, you may stay in an inpatient facility for longer.

There are also partial hospitalizations or intensive outpatient treatments for alcohol use.

Abstinence from drinking isn’t the only solution. There are philosophies and programs that encourage a harm reduction approach that promotes moderation over abstinence. This may mean making life changes like only drinking on the weekends, or giving up drinking alone. There are two challenges to this. One, abstinence tends to be popular, so you’re going to have a hard time finding support and acceptance for a modified version. Two, it’s pretty easy to tell yourself that you’re moderating your drinking when you really aren’t, because moderation is subjective.

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