Last Updated on January 11, 2021
Quitting alcohol cold turkey isn’t for everyone. In fact, stopping abruptly can even be dangerous for some people. And for others, it may just be easier, or feel more natural to cut back slowly.
If you’re interested in cutting back gradually, the good news is there are many ways to do it. It’s very much possible! Below we’ll discuss some common strategies for reducing your drinking, safety when giving up alcohol, and achieving long-term success without having to quit cold turkey.
Why Quit Alcohol Gradually?
Each person has their own unique needs. There are some people who genuinely benefit from quitting abruptly. These individuals may prefer to get things over with as quickly as possible, or have a medical reason why they must stop immediately. For others, gradually quitting alcohol feels less severe, is easier to follow through on, or is safer for them.
The most important thing is choosing an approach that is safe and effective for you. Quitting cold turkey can be harsh, and cause severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms for some people. If quitting gradually seems like the best fit for your personality and goals, it’s probably the best choice.
Risks of Alcohol Withdrawal
While for some people the effects of alcohol withdrawal are merely unpleasant, for others they can be serious, or even life-threatening. This is why you should never go through alcohol withdrawal alone, unless you are 100 percent sure you’ll have only mild symptoms.
The safest option is to quit under medical supervision. If that isn’t possible or practical, make sure you have another person checking in on you, and know which symptoms of alcohol withdrawal are dangerous.
Anxiety, headaches, insomnia, nausea, sweating, and shaking hands are all normal signs of alcohol detox and may not be cause for serious concern.
However, if you experience severe confusion, racing heart, hallucinations, or fever, it’s best to seek medical attention. In severe cases, alcohol withdrawal can progress to a condition known as delirium tremens, or cause seizures and even death.
Cutting back gradually may help you avoid alcohol withdrawal symptoms, but as of this moment there is little to no evidence that proves this. Therefore, no matter how you intend to go about quitting, it’s best to have professional medical advice before proceeding. This article should not substitute for the advice of a licensed physician.
Tips for cutting back safely:
- Meet with a physician: Get advice from a medical profession about your unique situation, and the best way to stay safe and reduce alcohol withdrawal symptoms.
- Have someone keep an eye on you: Either find friends who are willing to help, or join an accredited treatment program.
- Know your own system: If you’ve ever been through withdrawal before, consider your past experience carefully, and prepare.
- Consider medication: There are several medications that can help reduce the severity of withdrawal symptoms. However, you should consult with a doctor before taking these.
Strategies for Cutting Back
Once you’ve figured out how to reduce your alcohol consumption safely, there’s still the question of how to do it effectively. Each person’s drinking patterns, psychology, and physiology are different. Knowing what works best for you may take some trial and error. That said, each of the tips and strategies below may help you get a handle on the process, and stay on track towards your goals.
Make a daily drink schedule, with an end date
Many treatment programs suggest making a set schedule of how much you will reduce your drinking each day, and choosing a definite finish date. This is sometimes called a “tapering schedule.”
Some might opt to do this over a shorter period of time, such as a single week. In this situation, you would drink only as much as necessary to keep withdrawal symptoms under control, and stop drinking alcohol completely at the end. For other people, making a reduction plan that lasts several weeks, or even months, may be the best fit. What matters most is making a plan you can stick with, and finding effective ways to hold yourself to it.
Take medication for alcohol cravings
One way to make things easier on yourself is to take one of several anti-craving medications. These prescription drugs can help rebalance your brain chemistry, and reduce your urge to drink. Some, such as naltrexone, can even mute the effects of alcohol, so that drinking becomes less interesting over time.
Taking these medications can reduce the urge to “break the rules” or “cheat,” making the process less stressful.
Find ways to hold yourself accountable
It’s one thing to set a goal. It’s another thing to follow through to the end—especially if you experience strong cravings for alcohol.
If you’re quitting gradually over time, consider keeping a drinking journal. You might also try a “stop drinking app.” There are several options that can help you track your drinks, and others that connect you with a larger, supportive online community. Set reminders on your personal device or leave inspirational quotes around the house. Ask friends to hold you to your limits when you go out. Whatever works, so long as it gives you some structure, and helps you stick with the plan.
Get a support team
Not only is it safer to have others around, it can also give you much needed psychological support. Ask a friend or loved one to be your “safe person” in times of stress. Consider joining a support group—there are now secular alternatives to Alcoholics Anonymous, as well as online options. Finally, having a therapist, counselor, or recovery coach to talk to goes a long way.
Managing the Day-to-Day Details
Then, there’s the hour-by-hour, nitty-gritty of tapering off alcohol. Once again, different strategies work better for different people. But here are some key tips for controlling how much you consume, day in and day out:
- Measure, count, and space your drinks. A journal or drink-tracking app can make this easier.
- Know the standard drink definition: Roughly 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of liquor. Stay consistent in your definition of “one drink.”
- Replace drinks with water or electrolyte beverages.
- Choose specific times of day when you will drink or not drink.
- Switch to a drink you like less. (Start drinking wine if you prefer cocktails, for example.)
As for the best thing to drink when cutting back, many people recommend beer, or anything with a low alcohol content. This will make it harder to drink to intoxication, and easier to space your drinks.
Read More: 9 Tips for Quitting Alcohol
Cutting Back Long-Term
Once you’ve achieved your goal, there’s still the matter of sticking with sobriety or moderation for the long haul. It’s important to create structures for yourself that support long-term recovery. This can include finding activities and social opportunities that don’t involve alcohol, distancing yourself from common drinking triggers, and continuing to meet with a support group or coach.
It’s also important to have strategies for managing alcohol cravings. Maintenance medications such as acamprosate and naltrexone can help prevent relapse, as can a regular mindfulness practice. Ultimately, no matter how quickly you quit, permanent behavior change around alcohol often takes a long time. Find the long-term support system that works for you.
New Approaches to Quitting Gradually
With recent advances in technology and medication for alcoholism, it’s now much easier to quit or cut back gradually. In fact, a number of newer treatment methods actually encourage a long-term approach, letting you reduce your drinking over several months to a year. This includes the Sinclair Method, which uses the medication naltrexone to help people cut back, and boasts a 78 percent success rate.
Online treatment programs for alcohol use disorder are also gaining popularity. These options make it even easier to cut back over time, letting you access support from anywhere, on your own schedule.
Ria Health’s program is one of these—offering comprehensive help for alcohol addiction through a convenient smartphone app. Our members get expert medical care, regular coaching meetings, online support groups, customized treatment plans, and much more. If you’re interested in quitting gradually, you’ll have the support you need for as long as you need it—often at a much lower rate than most inpatient or outpatient clinics.
Learn more by scheduling a call with a member of our team today.