Alcohol withdrawal hallucinations can occur when people with severe alcohol dependence quit suddenly. Typically, hallucinations occur at around 12-24 hours after the last drink, or several days later as part of a collection of severe withdrawal symptoms known as Delirium Tremens (DTs).
Scientists cannot fully explain the exact mechanisms that prompt these illusions. These terrifying events likely result from massive alterations in neurotransmitter levels and brain receptor sites caused by prolonged alcohol exposure.
In this article, we will review some common symptoms of severe withdrawal, including this phenomenon. I will also let you in on my own experience.
Finally, we will cover available treatments and medications for severe addiction. We will conclude with a game plan of sorts for the alcohol-dependent person who wants to escape from the hellish nightmare of addiction.
Can you hallucinate when you stop drinking?
The simple answer is yes, many people with severe dependence hallucinate as part of their withdrawal syndrome. But as we will see, there are ways to prevent this terrifying symptom from occurring with proper medical care and longer-term self-care.
The symptoms of withdrawal, listed from relatively minor to severe, include:
- A general sense of unease
- Increased blood pressure
- Sense of impending doom
- Hypersensitive reflex responses
- High fever
- Full body twitching
- Brain zaps
- Auditory, visual, or tactile hallucinations that occur 12-24 hours after the last drink
- Delirium Tremens (DTs) – 3-4 days after last drink; confusion, illusions, and/or seizures that can last up to a week (untreated)
If you are dependent on drinking and have not experienced this, don’t consider yourself lucky just yet.
Thanks to a brain phenomenon called kindling, you can increase your probability of experiencing the illusions by continuing to drink – and, more precisely, by experiencing repeated episodes of withdrawal.
In animal models, repeated episodes of withdrawal lead to an increase in the frequency, duration, and severity of withdrawal symptoms. The most severe symptoms are seizures, which can be fatal. However, modern medications like benzodiazepines have made detox much safer than in the past.
Symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal Delirium
As you can see in the chart above, these can occur anywhere in the 0-6 day period after quitting drinking. People who are cutting down on drinking can experience this while still drinking.
For reasons that are not entirely understood, these illusions caused by withdrawal tend to conform to similar themes:
- Hearing angry and incoherent voices
- Feeling an ominous, dark presence
- In severe cases, experiencing nonexistent insects or rats chewing on one’s legs
Hallucinations that begin within the first day without alcohol tend to be largely auditory, and the individual tends to be aware that these voices or sounds are not real. The person may experience alternating phases of these illusions followed by periods of clearer thinking.
The ones that cannot be distinguished from reality – such as the insects or rats scenario above – tend to be symptoms of DTs that occur days after alcohol cessation. These seem very real for people who experience them.
What does delirium tremens look like?
I once experienced these illusions, and possibly delirium tremens, in my own apartment.
A few months before I quit drinking forever, I unwisely decided to quit cold turkey after a massive week-long binge. At the time, I knew nothing about anything I wrote about on this website.
Come on Chris, man up and get it together – you’ve got to go in for work on Monday. Tough it out.
After spending the entire weekend paralyzed by confusion and anhedonia (“pleasure deafness”) on my couch, I decided to transfer to my bed. Since it had been a few days since I had drank, I knew that I would not sleep.
But I did not know that my perception of reality was about to become totally skewed:
- I broke into a cold sweat
- I began involuntarily twitching
- I heard muttering, cackling, and screaming that I knew could not be real
- I saw dark figures leaping between doorways
- I felt brain zaps
- I felt violent sensations on the surface of my skin
- I felt an indescribably dark presence and a sense of impending of doom
To this day, this episode was the most bizarre and terrifying experience I have ever had. It is quite possible that I also had a seizure, although my memory of the event is understandably hazy.
I created Fit Recovery in large part because there are too many dry medical accounts of alcohol withdrawal on the Internet, written by people who have never experienced what they are writing about.
When I had delusions, what I should have done was see a doctor immediately and at the very least, begin a tapered regimen of benzodiazepines. Modern medicine can prevent DT’s and seizures! Don’t suffer needlessly.
I also wish I’d known a variety of effective strategies to dominate alcohol addiction and stay quit for good!
If a person is experiencing severe withdrawal and no medical treatment is available, sometimes the only immediate solution is to drink just enough alcohol to ease symptoms. Of course, this is a temporary solution that kicks the can down the road. But it is better than risking these illusions, which can sometimes be a precursor to seizures.
With that said, I will repeat what I said earlier…
If you’re experiencing this phenomenon, get to a doctor immediately.
Most hospitals in America will use benzodiazepines to prevent or reduce symptoms of acute withdrawal. This process can take up to a week, and doses will be determined by a doctor based on individual characteristics.
You can read more about the use of benzodiazepines for withdrawal in these articles:
Magnesium is also known to reduce the severity of withdrawal symptoms. (source) A select few treatment centers use megadoses of magnesium, along with other nutrients like vitamin C, to detoxify the body and reduce the severity of withdrawal.
What happens mentally when you stop drinking?
The experience I described above is the closest thing to hell that I’ve ever experienced.
It just felt dark, and if you’ve been through the same thing, you know exactly what I mean.
The good news is that you can conquer the beast and come back a changed person.
After you detox, conquering addiction should be your number-one priority for a long time to come. Due to kindling, your likelihood of experiencing hallucinations if you drink again rises – your slate is not wiped clean.
Fortunately for you, it’s possible to leave addiction – and these illusions – in the past.
You can start by proactively repairing your body and brain.
A great way to get started is to take Calm Support, which will begin the process of repair that your depleted body so desperately needs.
If you take the time to bookmark them, the following articles will prove very useful for you:
- Top 20 Supplements For Detox And Recovery
- Alcohol Withdrawal Timeline – And Body Repair After Quitting Drinking
- Top 10 Remedies For Sleep After Quitting Alcohol
- Top 10 Ways Exercise Rewires Your Brain
These experiences can and should be prevented with proper self-care. Ideally, it’s best to prevent them by tackling the problems long before they reach this level.
On the bright side, many people who write to me each day have been able to quit drinking despite having experienced this and even DTs.
With enough internal resolve, anyone can conquer addiction forever.
If you have any questions, please leave them in the comment box below.