It’s time to quit drinking. This is a necessary decision for many people, but often not an easy one. Most problem drinkers worry about the first stages of sobriety – basically, how they’re going to cope for the first week or so without having an alcoholic beverage.

When a person regularly consumes alcohol over a long period of time, the body and brain learn to work around it. That means changes to the way your brain and other organs work – and it can take a little while to get them back on track. The good news is that this IS the way to get them back on track and, although it might not feel that way immediately, sobriety is of incredible benefit to your long-term health.


See a doctor

If you are a very heavy drinker, you should seek medical advice before quitting. The physical side effects of sudden sobriety can be genuinely dangerous. Your doctor, it is important to understand, will not be judging you harshly – you have no reason to be embarrassed. From his or her point of view, you are making an extremely wise decision that will make both of your lives easier down the line.

Your doctor will be able to tell you (in more detail than this short guide) what to expect, when you should be following up and, in severe cases, whether you would be better off with inpatient treatment than trying to go cold turkey at home.

Make your intentions known

Tell a close friend or relative (or, better yet, several) that you are quitting, and when. This has two main benefits: first, it will go some way to keeping you accountable as you give up; second, it means that you have someone trustworthy to keep an eye out for you as you go through the most challenging part of your sobriety journey.

If you don’t want to tell anyone you know in real life about your decision, then consider joining a forum or chatroom full of other people on the same journey. With a smartphone or laptop, it means you always have someone to talk to and often guide you through the difficult process of quitting alcohol.

Remove temptation

We’ve all seen the cliché TV scene where the heavy-drinking protagonist pours away his liquor stash. You’ll probably be unsurprised to learn that it is a seriously good idea. Removing temptation from your immediate grasp is going to make your life 100% easier over the coming days.

As well as removing the physical sources of alcohol from your living area, you might consider temporarily blocking the people most likely to invite you out drinking – stopping them messaging you on Facebook, WhatsApp and via text. This sounds harsh, but it’s unfortunately very easy to throw away progress if you receive a tempting invitation. This by no means has to be a permanent move, although many ex-drinkers do find that their friendship groups change over the long-term as well.

The first days of sobriety

The physical effects of quitting alcohol

The physical side effects of quitting alcohol vary from person to person, but common things to look out for are:

  • Shaking hands
  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Sweating
  • Headaches
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Palpitations
  • Mood swings
  • Anxiety
  • “Mind fog”

Your doctor will have likely warned you about these symptoms, and told you at which point you should contact him or her for further help. Remember that it is ALWAYS OK to seek medical advice if you’re unsure about your side effects or think you need help.

More serious side effects – ones you should seek immediate medical attention for – include:

  • Convulsions
  • Fever
  • Hallucinations
  • Severe confusion
  • Severe abdominal pains

Alleviating the physical effects of cold turkey

Unfortunately, there is no way to completely alleviate the physical symptoms of cold turkey. However, there are ways to make it easier.

Soft lighting

Keep your living space lit with soft lamps, rather than harsh overhead lights. However, you’ll probably want to avoid candles – we want to encourage drifting off, and open flames don’t go well with napping!


Depending on your level of withdrawal, you may find concentration difficult. If you’re up to it, read a book you particularly enjoy, binge-watch a funny series, or re-watch a favorite movie or five. If you find it hard to concentrate on any of these activities, turning to audio is a great option, whether it’s audiobooks (light-hearted novels like Terry Pratchett’s work well) or podcasts (something with a bit of comradery like No Such Thing as a Fish, or Reply All).

Food and drink

Now is not the time to be caring about your waistline. Try to shovel in fruit and veg for the vitamins if you’ve got the stomach for it, but otherwise please feel free to stock up on whatever junk food is going to make you feel good. Pop a multivitamin to go with it. Seriously, sobriety is your number one priority right now, so you need to cut yourself some slack in other areas of your life.


Some people need to be alone during the first days of sobriety, and some prefer company. It’s OK to change your mind about this halfway through the process!

If you’ve got physical company, make sure it’s someone trustworthy who agrees with your decision to give up drinking.

Look up local AA groups and be ready to attend a meeting, even if you hadn’t planned on it to start with.

If you’ve chosen to go the online route, know that it’s OK to overshare – everybody does, and it helps!

Going forward

Sobriety is a long journey with many peaks and troughs (look up the “pink cloud effect” for one of the more fun peaks), but the long-term trend is that it gets easier. Every day, you will make a decision not to drink, until it feels natural to do so.

Cite this article as:
Editorial Staff, "Getting Through the First Days of Sobriety," in Medicalopedia, April 10, 2019, [Permalink:].