Many individuals struggling with substance abuse and/or addiction consider “quitting cold turkey” as a first step toward recovery. This involves completely stopping the use of alcohol or drugs, rather than gradually tapering off the substance.
There are many reasons people attempt quitting cold turkey. Some lack the patience needed to taper off, some believe they’ll be less tempted to abuse if they cut the substance out entirely, and others believe it’s the only option they can pursue on their own, without seeking professional help.
Determining whether quitting cold turkey will be safe and effective depends on several factors, from the type of substance you or your loved one uses, to the extent of use or addiction. Given that this is a topic we often receive questions on, we sat down with one of our in-house experts, Patrice Wishon, Clinical Director, MSW, LCSW, NASW-CATOD, LCAS, CCS, and asked a variety of questions. Patrice has over 30 years of experience in social work and mental health/substance abuse counseling, so she provided valuable insight based on our knowledge and experience at Crest View.
Is quitting cold turkey a safe and effective way to start your recovery journey?
Quitting cold turkey or abruptly stopping your use of substances can be a tempting way to quit. Quitting altogether can seem more final, or easier to manage than tapering off. This method can be effective, based on the type of substance you use, the amount and time you have used, and other factors. It can also be extremely dangerous for individuals with a longstanding addiction.
What are the effects of quitting cold turkey?
The effects vary based on many factors, particularly the substance at hand and the person’s history of use. For example, quitting cold turkey is a much safer approach for someone who doesn’t drink often and is just looking to have a healthier lifestyle, versus someone who is dependent on alcohol.
When you’re dependent and consistently use drugs or drink alcohol, changes in your brain occur, which can lead to severe cravings and withdrawal symptoms when you stop consuming the substance. Withdrawal refers to what happens to your body — physically and psychologically — when you stop using a substance you’ve grown dependent on. The symptoms range from mild to severe and can include:
- Difficulty sleeping
- Nausea and vomiting
- Body aches
The more you abuse a drug, the higher your tolerance grows. Over time, you must take more of it to feel the same effects, which can make quitting cold turkey even more unpleasant and dangerous.
Are there any misconceptions or myths associated with quitting cold turkey?
The main misconception, from my experience, is that individuals who are dependent on a substance still believe quitting cold turkey is a viable option toward recovery. Withdrawal can be fatal – especially when it involves alcohol or benzodiazepines (prescription drugs, like Xanax, taken most often for sleep and anxiety) – so I encourage individuals with substance abuse problems and their loved ones to educate themselves on the risks.
Why do you think some people choose to attempt quitting cold turkey instead of seeking other types of treatment?
Fear of judgement and stigma can keep people from seeking professional help to address substance use problems. In addition, lack of education about the disease of addiction and the withdrawal process may lead to attempts to quit cold turkey. Finally, people with limited resources may not be able to afford insurance and the healthcare they need.
What are safer/smarter alternatives to quitting cold turkey?
Once you decide to quit, consult with a substance abuse or medical professional to find out more about treatment options and safe ways to quit, based on your unique experience and circumstances.
Doctors will often recommend medically-supervised detoxification, which includes medications to ease withdrawal symptoms and discomfort. Be aware that long-term and heavy substance abuse often lead to some symptoms lasting weeks or even months. This is why receiving professional rehab treatment is so important.
Once you complete a treatment program and are sober, your doctor can refer you to a specialized alcohol team for support, offer counseling, and can put you in touch with local support groups to help you stay on track.
Are there ways to prepare for and/or alleviate the side-effects of quitting cold turkey?
If you do plan to quit cold turkey, educate yourself about what to expect. Make a plan that includes informing your support system, ridding your environment of the substance you abuse and related items, and planning activities/hobbies that will provide a healthy distraction from uncomfortable cravings and withdrawal.
If you or a loved one are dependent on a substance and ready to quit, I again encourage you to seek professional help. The safest and most effective way to manage withdrawal symptoms is to quit under the supervision of a medical professional.
Are you or your loved one ready to seek help?
Located in the beautiful mountains of Asheville, North Carolina, Crest View Recovery Center offers comprehensive substance abuse treatment programs to help you along your journey to sobriety. Comfortable, beautiful, safe and private, our center provides individualized addiction therapy services that take your specific needs and circumstances into consideration.