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What is White Knuckling? What Does it Look Like?
In the context of alcoholism, white knuckling means attempting to get sober on your own with nothing but willpower.
White knuckling sobriety means using self-control to get and/or stay sober. But the intense symptoms of alcohol withdrawal make this difficult, and often unachievable.
Alcohol withdrawal syndrome refers to changes the body may undergo when someone suddenly stops drinking after a prolonged period of heavy alcohol use.1
Heavy drinking refers to consuming more than four drinks per day or more than 14 drinks per week for men. For women, this is more than three drinks per day or more than seven drinks per week.4
The symptoms of alcohol withdrawal syndrome can range from uncomfortable to fatal.
Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal syndrome include, but are not limited to:2
- Mood swings
- Brain fog
- Severe confusion
- Sweatiness or clammy skin
- Enlarged pupils
- Rapid heartbeat
- Irregular heartbeat
- Loss of appetite
- Nausea with or without vomiting
Typically, the mild symptoms of alcohol withdrawal syndrome begin developing within just a few hours of the last drink.5
If you or someone you know is struggling with alcohol withdrawal syndrome, you’re not alone.
In 2000, 226,000 patients were discharged from short-stay hospitals with alcohol withdrawal-related diagnoses. These included alcohol withdrawal, alcohol withdrawal delirium, or alcohol withdrawal hallucinosis.3
Still, many more people suffer from alcohol withdrawal symptoms and other alcohol-related disorders behind closed doors.
Only an estimated 10 to 20 percent of patients with the syndrome are treated as inpatients. This means that as many as two million Americans may have symptoms every year.3
How Dangerous is White Knuckling?
White knuckling is very dangerous. Alcohol withdrawal syndrome symptoms can be deadly. Trying to get sober with willpower alone is linked to relapse.
The risks of white knuckling include:
- Failure to cut back on or quit drinking, which can lead to the development of health problems like liver and heart disease2
- Personal and professional relationship issues that arise with alcohol withdrawal symptoms like mood swings, irritability, and depression
- Worsening of any of the above alcohol withdrawal symptoms
Relying on self-constraint is not typically enough. It is not a generally effective method of achieving sobriety. Even if it is possible, white knuckling sobriety is not safe.
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What Causes White Knuckle Sobriety?
There are a few causes of white knuckle sobriety:
- Some people think they can rely on self control and a strong mindset
- Some people assume they don’t need treatment if they just give up alcohol cold turkey
- Some people are not aware of how serious alcohol withdrawal symptoms can be
- Some people don’t think that alcohol withdrawal could happen to them
- Some people think their problems are unique and require other solution
- Some people don’t have support around them
- Some people do not know how to access the support that is available to them
However, alcohol addiction is serious. While addiction affects every person differently, it requires professional support and medical detox (in most cases).
Who is at Risk of White Knuckling?
People who struggle with alcohol addiction, but are not able to admit it, are at risk of white knuckling. They may think that they can ride it out alone and achieve sobriety without any help.
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How to Tell if You are White Knuckling
You’re white knuckling if:
- You’re having trouble cutting back on or quitting alcohol consumption
- You have been trying to recover on your own but are struggling to do it
- You find that willpower is not working
If you’re experiencing these symptoms, talk to a trusted medical professional. There are many different treatment options available.
How to Stop White Knuckling
To stop white knuckling, seek professional help. You have several options.
Inpatient and outpatient rehab centers can help you with medical doctors and mental health professionals who stick with you every step of the way.
Therapies like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), counseling, family therapy, and more can also help you identify and unpack the triggers that drive you to drink.
Mental health experts can help you adopt healthier coping mechanisms to deal with everyday triggers.
Support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) also exist so you don’t have to go down the road to recovery alone. Learning from people who have been in your shoes and consulting others who are on the same journey (or closely related journeys) can help.
In fact, research suggests that support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous are the most effective in helping people achieve sobriety. They tend to help even more than therapy.6
Certain medications can also help you stop drinking alcohol without relying on willpower alone.