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Updated on July 31, 2023
6 min read

Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome Supportive Therapy

Ellie Swain
Dr P. E. Pancoast, MD
Written by 
7 Sources Cited
Ellie Swain
Written by 
7 Sources Cited

What Is Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome?

If you consume alcohol for weeks, months, or years, you may have mental and physical problems when you stop or reduce how much you drink. This condition is called alcohol withdrawal syndrome. It occurs because of physiologic changes within your body and due to dependence of your body on having alcohol present regularly. 

Mild symptoms and severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms can occur, depending on how serious the condition is. However, if you only drink alcohol once in a while, it’s unlikely that you’ll experience withdrawal symptoms when you stop.

But if you’ve experienced severe alcohol withdrawal syndrome symptoms before, you’re more likely to go through it again the next time you try to stop drinking.

Fortunately, various types of alcohol withdrawal syndrome supportive therapy options are available to help people recover from alcohol misuse.

Difference Between Withdrawal and a Hangover

Alcohol withdrawal syndromes and hangovers are unpleasant experiences that can occur from alcohol abuse. However, the way they’re caused is different.

Withdrawal refers to the physical and psychological signs and symptoms that occur when a person stops using a substance that they’ve developed a physical dependence on.

Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can range from mild, including headaches, to severe, including withdrawal seizures. 

Conversely, a hangover is a collection of symptoms that develop after someone has over-consumed alcohol. 

Hangover signs and symptoms can include:

  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Tiredness
  • Dehydration
  • Sensitivity to light and sound

A hangover is caused by: 

  • Toxic effects of alcohol on the body
  • Dehydration
  • Depletion of certain nutrients

Both alcohol withdrawal syndrome and a hangover can be unpleasant and interfere with daily life. But they give different experiences to the body.

Alcohol withdrawal syndrome is a sign of physical dependence on a substance. A hangover is a result of excessive alcohol use.

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Causes & Signs of Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome

Alcohol has a depressive effect on your body system. It slows brain function and changes how your nerves send messages back and forth.

After consistent drinking, your central nervous system eventually adjusts to having alcohol in the body all the time. Your body works hard to keep your brain awake and have your nerves communicating with one another.

When the alcohol levels in your body suddenly drop, your brain remains in this altered mental status and can’t function normally. This is what causes an alcohol withdrawal syndrome.

Mild withdrawal symptoms may include:

  • Headaches
  • Mental disorders like anxiety, depression, and insomnia
  • Tiredness
  • Mood changes
  • Nausea

Severe withdrawal symptoms may include:

  • Severe gastrointestinal disturbances
  • Heart palpitations
  • A high blood pressure or heart rate
  • Rapid abnormal breathing
  • Hallucinations
  • Delirium tremens or shakes
  • Hyperthermia
  • Alcohol withdrawal seizures

When Should I See a Doctor for Alcohol Withdrawal?

You may need to see a doctor for alcohol withdrawal if you: 

  • Experience any concerning or severe symptoms during alcohol withdrawal
  • Have a history of substance abuse or addiction
  • Have underlying medical or mental health conditions that may complicate the alcohol withdrawal process
  • Have attempted to quit drinking alone but have been unsuccessful or have experienced severe withdrawal symptoms
  • Have a history of severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms or have experienced withdrawal before
  • Can no longer control the amount of alcohol you consume or how long you drink
  • Start experiencing consequences related to your alcohol misuse
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Supportive Therapies for Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome

Treatment of alcohol withdrawal usually involves a combination of pharmacological and supportive therapies. Here are three examples of therapies that can help with excessive alcohol consumption.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a therapy that helps people identify and change negative thought patterns and behaviors that may be contributing to their alcohol use disorders.1

CBT is often the preferred type of psychotherapy for many types of issues. It can quickly help people learn to identify and cope with particular challenges. Plus, CBT usually requires fewer sessions than other types of talk therapy and is provided in a structured way.

This type of therapy can help people:1

  • Manage the signs and symptoms of alcohol withdrawal and mental disorders
  • Prevent a relapse
  • Identify ways to manage emotions
  • Treat alcohol withdrawal when medicine isn't a good option
  • Learn techniques for dealing with stressful life situations
  • Resolve relationship issues and learn better ways to communicate
  • Deal with grief or loss
  • Overcome trauma related to abuse or violence 
  • Deal with a medical illness
  • Manage chronic physical symptoms

Generally, there are few risk factors in receiving cognitive behavioral therapy. But you may feel emotionally uncomfortable sometimes. 

CBT can cause people to explore painful feelings, emotions, and experiences. People participating in CBT may cry, get upset, or feel angry during therapy. Attendees may also feel physically drained.

However, working with a skilled therapist will reduce any risks. The coping skills you discover can help you deal with and conquer negative feelings and concerns.

Motivational Interviewing

Motivational interviewing is a type of counseling that helps people identify their reasons for wanting to change their behavior. It can be helpful for people struggling to remain motivated to quit alcohol or who are resistant to treatment for alcohol withdrawal.

It’s possible to have conflicting desires, like wanting to change your behavior but believing that you’re not ready to change it. Motivational interviewing empowers people to take responsibility for their recovery journey.

There are several reasons why motivational interviewing is a popular alcohol withdrawal syndrome therapy, including how it:

  • Helps build people’s self-confidence and trust in themselves
  • Encourages people to take responsibility for themselves and their actions
  • Reduces the chance of future relapse
  • Prepares people to become more receptive to alcohol withdrawal treatment
  • Shows people that they have the power to change their lives themselves

A study demonstrated that, of 39 studies reviewed, two-thirds found that motivational interviewing was linked with significant reductions in adolescent substance abuse.3

Mindfulness-Based Therapies

Mindfulness-based therapies include mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) and mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR). These therapies help people learn to manage their alcohol withdrawal cravings and be more aware of their thoughts and feelings in the present moment.4

Mindfulness-based therapies are helpful for people with mental disorders like anxiety or depression associated with quitting alcohol.

MBCT is a type of therapy that involves a combination of:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy
  • Meditation
  • The development of a present-oriented, non-judgemental attitude known as ‘mindfulness’

MBCT was introduced by therapists Zindel Segal, Mark Williams, and John Teasdale. They wanted to build upon cognitive therapy. 

The three believed that combining cognitive therapy with a program established in 1979 by Jon Kabat-Zinn called mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) therapy could be more effective.

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Summary

  • Alcohol withdrawal syndrome is a condition that occurs when a person stops or reduces their alcohol consumption after developing alcohol dependence.
  • Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can range from mild to severe. They can include headaches, anxiety, tremors or shakes, insomnia, heart palpitations, hallucinations, and seizures.
  • Alcohol withdrawal syndrome is different from a hangover, which occurs from excessive alcohol consumption.
  • Supportive therapies for alcohol withdrawal include CBT, motivational interviewing, and mindfulness-based therapies. These treatments can help people manage withdrawal symptoms, prevent relapse, and cope with emotional trauma and physical alcohol withdrawal symptoms.
  • If someone experiences alcohol withdrawal syndrome, they likely require treatment for alcohol misuse. This is especially when they can no longer control their alcohol consumption or experience consequences related to their alcohol use disorder.
Updated on July 31, 2023
7 sources cited
Updated on July 31, 2023
All Alcoholrehabhelp content is medically reviewed or fact checked to ensure as much factual accuracy as possible.

We have strict sourcing guidelines and only link to reputable media sites, academic research institutions and, whenever possible, medically peer reviewed studies.
  1. Cognitive behavioral therapy, Mayo Clinic, 2019
  2. Barnett, Elizabeth et al. “Motivational Interviewing for adolescent substance use: a review of the literature.” Addictive behaviors vol. 37,12, 2012
  3. Frost, Helen et al. “Effectiveness of Motivational Interviewing on adult behaviour change in health and social care settings: A systematic review of reviews.” PloS one vol. 13,10, 2018
  4. MacKenzie, Meagan B, and Nancy L Kocovski. “Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for depression: trends and developments.” Psychology research and behavior management vol. 9 125-32, 2016
  5. Newman RK, Stobart Gallagher MA, Gomez AE, Alcohol Withdrawal, 2022
  6. Kattimani, Shivanand, and Balaji Bharadwaj. “Clinical management of alcohol withdrawal: A systematic review.” Industrial psychiatry journal vol. 22,2, 2013
  7. Jesse, S et al. “Alcohol withdrawal syndrome: mechanisms, manifestations, and management.” Acta neurologica Scandinavica vol. 135,1, 2017
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All content created by Alcohol Rehab Help is sourced from current scientific research and fact-checked by an addiction counseling expert. However, the information provided by Alcohol Rehab Help is not a substitute for professional treatment advice.
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