Whether you’re in treatment, detoxing on your own or in an AA meeting, it’s a really good idea to find someone who has been sober just a little longer than you have.
The old-timers or therapists who have been sober for years are not as much use in the first week of sobriety. They have forgotten the shakes, the rage, the unbearable cravings to use or drink one more time. They might have even forgotten the agony of withdrawal.
Once you decide to get sober, your first alcohol-free week often feels like the greatest achievement and something to be proud of, although you may feel differently at the time.
If you’re in an alcohol rehab, it’s likely you’re not the only new person.
Everything you’re feeling emotionally and physically has been felt before by the last patient who wanted a sober life. This is not a time for heroics, this is a time for support and compassion from others; and there is no need to be alone, whether you’re in the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous or in hospital.
You want what they have
First-Hand Experiences: if you’re worried about what it’s going to be like being newly sober, we’ve compiled personal accounts, studies and tips for your first week going sober.
You are not alone
“The NHS estimates that around 9% of men in the UK and 3% of UK women show signs of alcohol dependence.”
The first week sober from alcohol
Your first week of detox will depend on the nature of your drinking. People who have been drinking heavily on a daily basis are going to experience more intense withdrawal symptoms compared to the top-up drinker or short binge drinker.
The good news is that you may be past the worst after three days. During a medically managed detox, led by a Consultant Psychiatrist, doctors and a team of nurses, you can expect to be looked after and sometimes prescribed medications to alleviate the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal.
Some of the most typical symptoms during the first week of sobriety include:
- Headaches, severe sweating, hand tremors (‘the shakes’)
- Difficulty sleeping, insomnia, nightmares
- Anxiety, fear
- Irritability, restlessness, vomiting, nausea, dry heaves
- Difficulty concentrating, palpitations, rapid heartbeat
- Diarrhoea, pins and needles, cramps
- Visual and auditory hallucinations
- Skin redness and rashes
- Daydreaming, fantasies, hearing voices
- Seizures, headaches, depression, exhaustion, weird sensations in the body
- Hot flushes, odour, difficulty sitting still, cravings
Be warned that the most severe symptoms include delirium tremens (DT), which can lead to death. Therefore, it is always best to detox in an inpatient facility, such as Castle Craig, with professional doctors and therapists on hand to manage and treat these symptoms and help you detox safely.
Alcohol withdrawal Timeline
Minor withdrawal symptoms or seizures in very heavy drinkers
12 to 24 hours
Hallucinations can begin
Anxiety, fear and tension can become very acute
24 to 48 hours
Physical symptoms begin in all patients
Emotions can become intensified
48 hours to 72 hours
DTs (delirium tremens) can occur
Sweating and physical ailments persist
For most patients, the worst is now over
The physical symptoms should begin to improve
(The mental side effects can last much longer)
Drugs are a lot more varied in their range of experiences, so your first week of sobriety will depend on your substance of choice. For example, some prescription medications are known to have some of the worst side effects.
Different drugs provide different detox experiences, for example, the symptoms of opiate withdrawal often appear far quicker as the drug leaves the body at a faster rate.
- Cannabis: Typical symptoms include difficulty sleeping or headaches. More on cannabis withdrawal.
- Opiates: Can cause heavy abdominal cramps, nausea and muscle aches. See more.
It’s harder to do it alone
One of the most commonly reported psychological symptoms across the first week of both alcohol and drug detox is anxiety and an intense desire to use again, known as cravings.
This is perhaps one of the most significant stumbling blocks in the way of staying sober during your first week. The physical symptoms may be manageable, but what about the voice telling you to use again?
This is often due to the withdrawal symptoms being so bad that you’re desperate to alleviate them, or you feel that symptoms are subsiding so much that you believe you’re now ‘better’, or ‘cured’, so what harm would one drink or smoke do?
Remember: Alcoholism is a cunning, baffling and powerful disease that can override any logical thinking. Drinking after a period of abstinence can have devastating consequences.
In the words someone recovering from alcoholism, “the cravings I experienced were a strong, driving desire to have a beer. It felt like my brain just wasn’t fully functioning”. More.
One of the hardest things about fighting this urge is the existence of ‘triggers’.
These are psychological triggers that make you want to drink or use again: it could be walking past your local pub, getting a text from someone you’d take drugs with, or some emotional stress that you used substances to escape from. Sometimes it’s that euphoric recall that your drinking was just really fun.
Major international studies on addiction suggest that these cues cause you to act in an ‘automated, habit like manner’, that often go against conscious intentions.
This means that even if you consciously think and decide not to relapse, your automatic habit-based brain gets triggered by a cue and you act ‘against your own conscious will’.
Fighting the urge to use again is one of the hardest things about recovery
For this reason, recovering on your own is much harder than having a support system in place.
With our detox treatment, we provide 24/7 care. You are monitored around the clock in a specialised detox unit so you won’t be going through your detox alone: our experienced team of doctors, psychiatrists and nurses will be supporting you every step of the way.
There is no need for confusion or anxiety about how bad your symptoms are, your safety, or your possibility of relapse. We ensure that you stay stable, on track, and comfortable.
It’s important to remember that everyone’s circumstances and recovery are different, and your experience will depend on the nature of your alcohol use.
The First Day: A personal account
For many people, their first day seems to be relatively painless compared to what they were expecting.
‘My first day sober was one of the easiest as far as physical withdrawal symptoms. I had always been an evening drinker, so my body was used to getting through the day without alcohol. As the evening began, I worried that physical symptoms like shakiness or sweating might start, but nothing happened… For others, the first day can be quite difficult. Often, this is because their first day sober immediately followed a heavy binge. Therefore, their first day normally includes typical hangover symptoms, such as shaking, tiredness, sweating, nausea and vomiting.’ – A previously alcohol addicted person.
For some people, this is where their uncomfortable physical symptoms begin to subside. They start to feel more clear-headed and the hangover from yesterday has started to fade.
During this midweek period, a small amount of heavily dependent users report more intense side effects. It’s important to note that these symptoms pale in comparison to the long-term side effects of heavy drinking, such as wet brain, liver failure and death.
End of the week
At the tail-end of the first week, physical symptoms generally subside and you start to feel a lot better. Your body has removed the alcohol from its system and, with good nutrition and hydration, you’ll be feeling more physically stable.
The hard part will be managing triggers and problematic behaviours, though individual and group therapy works by giving you the tools you need to overcome these obstacles.
Insomnia is a commonly reported side effect of the first week sober, as people often use alcohol as a sleep aid due to its soporific effect. Once alcohol has been removed, you may temporarily struggle to get a good night’s sleep.
However, as the physical symptoms presented, this alleviates itself as you move further through your sober journey.
Turning one week into one month
One week of sobriety is a great achievement, and many people report feeling better after their first sober seven-day stretch.
You may go to an AA meeting believing that you don’t have much to offer, but to the man or woman who is a few hours sober you have achieved the impossible, you have a wealth of knowledge that they need. Go find a newcomer and offer them a helping hand. It will help you stay sober.
Addiction is a disease, not a lifestyle choice. Recovering by yourself is difficult and having support and rehab helps increase recovery rates considerably.
The key here is what you do after detoxing from a substance. Our therapy service provides extended support throughout the recovery process, allowing you to stay sober past that first week.
If you need emergency mental health advice or medical support please call the NHS 24 helpline as soon as possible on 111. The advice is free and could save your life.
If you need advice on accessing rehab treatment for addictions, please call our 24-Hour Rehab Helpline on 01721 728118.
More on sobriety
- Tips & Benefits for the Sober Curious
- What is SoberCare?
- Planning a Sober Holiday
- When I Get Sober Will I Need a New Job?
Page last reviewed and medically fact-checked | August 24, 2021