What is Better Quitting Cold Turkey or Slow Over Time?
Do you struggle with an addiction? Do you want to quit, but just can’t find a way? Do you wonder if it’s better to do it “cold turkey” or slower over time?
The most difficult addictions to overcome, in order of difficulty, are nicotine, opioids, benzodiazepines, alcohol, and cocaine.
The 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health looked at how many individuals used tobacco, alcohol, or illicit drugs.
The report showed that about 164.8 million Americans over the age of 11 stated they had used in the past month.
You are not alone in your fight to become sober. Once you quit, you will still have to find the strength to remain sober. Continue reading to learn about “going cold turkey” to overcome an addiction.
“Quit Cold Turkey” Meaning Defined
When did this phrase “quitting cold turkey” start? The earliest known use of this phrase was in The Daily Colonist newspaper in 1921. This phrase describes the abrupt stopping of an activity that’s considered harmful.
It may have originated from the phrase “talking cold turkey”. This described a time when a person was direct and blunt.
Another explanation is that cold turkey is a quick dish to serve. There’s no need to spend time cooking. Thus, it’s an abrupt meal to serve.
Today, when you quit cold turkey, it means you stop a harmful habit immediately. There’s no weaning down period.
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Benefits of Quitting Cold Turkey
A 2016 study comparing quitting smoking slowly vs. cold turkey. It was published in The Annals of Internal Medicine.
The study participants were divided into 2 groups. Group 1 quit abruptly and Group 2 decreased smoking by 75% over 2 weeks before they quit.
Both groups used nicotine supplements during and after quitting. At 4 weeks, 39.2% of Group 2 remained abstinent compared to 49.0% of Group 1. At 6 months, 15.5% of Group 2 were still abstinent while 22.0% of Group 1 remained smoke-free.
This study concluded that stopping cold turkey lead to longer success with quitting smoking.
The Difficulty with Going Cold Turkey?
The hardest part of stopping the use of an addictive substance is managing withdrawal symptoms.
The effects may last weeks, months, or even years. Each person has a different experience and coping mechanisms.
Withdrawal symptoms depend on the substance and length of addiction. It’s important to understand that this only describes the physical symptoms.
Other emotional and behavioral triggers accompany addictions.
Opioids or Opiates
Withdrawal symptoms often last 72 hours to about 5 days.
- Aching muscles
- Restlessness and anxiety
- Teary eyes and runny nose
- Excessive sweating
- Trouble sleeping and frequent yawning
- Diarrhea and stomach cramping
- Nausea and vomiting
- Goosebumps on the skin
- Dilated pupils and blurry vision
- Increased heart rate
- High blood pressure
After about a week, these physical symptoms decrease.
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When stopping benzodiazepines, many people experience “rebound” symptoms. This often begins between 1 and 4 days of stopping use.
Depending on how often and how much you used, symptoms can last up to 10 days.
Rebound symptoms include:
- Problems sleeping
- Increased anxiety and tension
- Panic attacks
- Trouble concentrating
- Excessive sweating
- Heart palpitations
- Stiffness or pain in muscles
- Tremors in hands
Severe addicts may experience hallucinations, seizures, psychosis or psychotic responses, and/or suicidal ideation.
Withdrawing from cocaine can make you feel so weak that you don’t feel like doing normal activities. Symptoms can include:
- Restlessness, irritability, and agitation
- Generalized discomfort
- Strong cravings to use cocaine
- Mental and physical exhaustion
- Anhedonia which means not being able to feel joy or pleasure
- Upsetting, dramatic, vivid dreams
- Increase in your appetite
- Decrease in motivation
- Feeling sleepy much of the time
- Decreased libido or sexual desire
- Difficulty concentrating
Some people also have headaches and other physical symptoms. Some severe cases experience suicidal thoughts, hostility, and paranoia.
Cocaine Withdrawal Occurs in Three Stages
“The Crash” occurs in the first several hours to days. People feel severe depression, exhaustion, restlessness, and irritability. They may even think about suicide.
The second stage of withdrawal lasts one to 10 weeks. The person’s mood and ability to function improves. Yet they feel bored and lack pleasure.
They often experience cocaine cravings, irritability, low energy, inability to concentrate, and sleep disturbance. At this point, there’s a high risk of relapse.
The last stage, extinction, includes extreme cocaine cravings the come and go. People also experience mood swings during this phase which can last up to six months.
The length and amount of cocaine use impact the severity of the withdrawal symptoms. For most people, withdrawal symptoms last between one and two weeks.
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Often, alcohol withdrawal symptoms manifest in the following timeline.
In the first 6 to 12 hours after stopping alcohol, the person may feel agitated, anxious, shaky, and nauseated. They may also have headaches and vomiting.
In the following 12 to 24 hours, they often experience disorientation, hand tremors, and seizures. The symptoms increase after 48 hours without alcohol.
Symptoms include seizures, insomnia, high blood pressure, and hallucinations. They may also have a high fever with excessive sweating and delirium tremens.
Withdrawal usually stops in 5 days but may continue longer for some people.
The severity of withdrawal depends on the frequency, amount, and length of time of a person’s addiction. Other medical problems can also increase symptoms.
Strategies for Coping During Withdrawal
There are steps you can take to help overcome withdrawal symptoms. Each person is unique and responds differently to withdrawal and coping mechanisms.
Following is a list of strategies to try when undergoing withdrawal:
- Exercise regularly
- Ask your practitioner about medication to help with the withdrawal symptoms
- Surround yourself with positive, supportive people
- Avoid being around people who are using your addictive substance
- Stay away from places or situations that act as triggers for your addiction
- Talk with your practitioner before you take any other medications
- Plan a daily schedule that involves engrossing and distracting activities
The most important point is to have a support system when you quit. Don’t try to do it alone.
Support After Quitting Cold Turkey
Johan Hari, a British journalist said, “The opposite of addiction is not sobriety; the opposite of addiction is connection.”
Addiction often drives a wedge in healthy relationships. This leads to increased isolation, anxiety, and depression.
The addicted individual spends more time with people engaged in the same destructive behavior. Soon, it feels like they have no other options.
Thus, one of the keys to addiction recovery is to reconnect with positive people. Engaging in groups of recovering addicts provides a bond with others facing the same struggle to stay sober.
These relationships provide the following.
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One of the hardest steps in recovery is not taking that first drink or drug.
Once the individual leaves rehab, it’s important to stay in contact with counselors or peers. This provides support to help you stay sober.
Many recovering addicts may have lost their former community groups. Family and friends may not want them around anymore.
Sponsors and peers can relieve feelings of loneliness that could lead to a relapse.
Participating in a rehabilitation program provides education to help you stay sober. They also teach coping mechanisms including how to avoid and cope with triggers.
They also celebrate successes and provide a sense of hope.
Many former addicts have a poor self-image and lack self-confidence. Counselors and sponsors can help change those negative inner monologues.
They help individuals identify and redirect these thought processes.
Learn New Ways to Have Fun
For many addicts, their perception of having fun involved using the addictive substance.
Rehab programs develop new interests and skills that increase joy in people’s lives. When choosing to have fun, the addict must make choices that don’t act as triggers.
Increased Social Confidence
For many people who have experienced addiction, they don’t feel socially competent. In the past, they used the addictive substance as a buffer to manage social anxiety.
It’s important to work on improving social interaction skills without using a “crutch”.
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Are You Ready to Fight Your Addiction?
Are you or someone you know struggling with an addiction?
Are there conflicting opinions about whether going cold turkey or gradual withdrawal is better?
It may be time to talk with professionals at an addiction center.
Pathfinders Recovery Center provides effective, well-researched, cutting-edge addiction treatment.
For the past 25 years, we have focused on helping people recover from drug and alcohol addiction. We work with any other disorders you may have along with the addiction.
An important part of our care involves help transitioning back into society. There’s no instant cure.
We understand that ongoing support is imperative.
Our center believes that each person adapts, changes, and progresses in different ways and at different times.
You will experience a fun, safe, loving, and peaceful environment. All interactions are strictly confidential.
This atmosphere facilitates healing and develops connections.
Contact us today to ask questions about our program.