What is White Knuckling in Sobriety?

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Part of the complete guide to understanding addiction

White knuckling is the term used to describe the process of quitting drugs or alcohol on your own, without any outside support. The white knuckling meaning typically describes a method used by people struggling with addiction, where they completely abstain from their substance of choice in the hope that they will stay sober for life. Although some people do find white knuckling to be an effective path to recovery, this is rarely ever true for the long term. White knuckle sobriety is not only lonely, but it can be dangerous physically, emotionally, and mentally, and, worse of all, it has very little chance of continued success.

The Pros of White Knuckling Sobriety

Quitting drugs or alcohol or your own may feel great. There’s no question that dealing with addiction on your own is a wonderful feeling and will strengthen your willpower and determination - two qualities that are essential for sobriety. However, these feelings may come to an abrupt halt as white knuckling doesn't often yield long-lasting, permanent results.

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The Cons of White Knuckling Sobriety

If you’re white knuckling to get sober, consider the cons of doing so.

Avoiding the Real Issue

Abstaining from drugs or alcohol as a strategy for dealing with addiction is only working on the issue itself. It does not deal with the deeper core issues that cause the addiction, or address negative behaviors and habits that need to be assessed to cure yourself of addiction for the long-term. Traditional therapy, 12-step AA groups, and rehab programs will dig into your past and find the cause of your addiction. They will identify possible pitfalls such as the people you do drugs with, places that serve as a trigger etc. They will also help to give you the addiction recovery tools you need to circumvent the day-to-day challenges and addiction urges that people struggling with addiction face.

Withdrawal Symptoms

The withdrawal symptoms that are an outcome of quitting drugs vary from drug to drug. These symptoms include nausea, vomiting, muscle pain, seizures, confusion, insomnia, fatigue, depression, anxiety, paranoia, and more. Besides being unpleasant, these symptoms can become dangerous. In drug detox facilities or under the care of a competent therapist (if the addiction is less severe), the withdrawal symptoms are monitored and a process called ‘medical detox’ is employed where the user is slowly weaned off the drug in a safe way. White knuckling sobriety does not allow you to go through the process of withdrawal in a safe manner.

Lack of Motivation

People who abstain from their drug of choice on their own may not have the best motivation for doing so. It’s likely that they’re doing it because they want to avoid going to jail, they’re being threatened by their loved ones, they are in danger of losing their job, or other negative consequences. To recover properly from addiction, you need to really want to change - not just be doing it to avoid negative outcomes. There has to be a strong desire to live differently, as otherwise it’s unlikely that staying sober will happen.

Euphoric Recall

People white knuckling sobriety may feel like they’re clinging desperately to sobriety instead of positively ridding themselves of addiction so they can embrace a happier future. They may experience something called ‘euphoric recall’ [1] where they remember their experience of addiction in a positive light, forgetting the negative aspect of it. They may focus on the enjoyable aspects of drug-taking, and minimize the unpleasant side-effects, the troubled relationships, the financial and legal issues, and the feelings of shame and guilt that often accompany addiction.


There is a big chance that someone white knuckling sobriety will substitute one substance for another. In the best case, the person may become addicted to one substance over another, for example, alcohol instead of heroin. In the worst case they’ll be left with an addiction to both substances - leaving them in a worse position than they were in previously.


Relapse is a big risk for anyone struggling with addiction. However, people who have a supportive recovery system such as in an alumni recovery program are far less likely to relapse than people who go at it alone. White knuckling sobriety is lonely and unpleasurable, making the chances of relapse much higher. Additionally, while therapy or rehab require commitment, people white knuckling have little to lose when they relapse, making it an enticing option.

How to Overcome the Urge to White Knuckle Sober

There are many reasons why people struggling with addiction may feel an urge to recover from their addiction on their own. They may have insufficient financial resources, little desire to commit to rehab, or other reasons why they prefer to quit on their own. If it happens to you or someone you love, try to remember the following:

Firstly, find some support and advice from family, friends, and professionals. You may find that there are people who would like to help you either financially, emotionally, or physically. If you find a great support group or rehab center that accepts your insurance or you have the means to pay for it, try that option before attempting white knuckling.

Secondly, find ways to take care of yourself physically and emotionally. Practice healthy habits like eating properly, keeping to a normal sleeping schedule, exercising regularly, spending time with emotionally healthy people, and utilizing relaxation methods. These behaviors put you in the right frame of mind and help you overcome the urge to manage your addiction on your own.

Thirdly, remember that addiction is a disease like any other. Just as you wouldn’t attempt to deal with cancer or lung disease on your own, find professionals who are experienced in this disease and have the ability to help you recover fully in the long term.

Finally, try to envision the loving cocoon of support that you can receive with your family, friends, and a professional rehab center together with you on your journey. You don’t have to feel lonely, desperate, or in turmoil. With the right treatment and support, the journey can be so much more empowering, enlightening, and cleansing.

Treatment Options for Sobriety

As mentioned in this article, there are many methods to achieve sobriety that have proven to be effective. These include:

  • 12-step recovery program - this method emphasizes serenity, relinquishing control, and spirituality, as well as the supportive environment of the participants in the group. The program was developed to help people dealing with alcohol addiction (AA/ Alcoholics Anonymous [2]) but has been adapted to address drug addiction, as well as other addictions.
  • Therapy - there are many modalities of therapy that can assist in the healing process by addressing the underlying core issues. It is most effective when paired with another form of recovery, such as a support group.
  • Medication-assisted treatment - this is where medication is used to weaken the effects of the withdrawal symptoms, relieve the anxiety and depression associated with addiction, and overall to assist the addict in becoming sober. This must take place in a safe medical facility and be monitored by a mental health professional.
  • Inpatient or outpatient rehab facility - this is the preferred option for people dealing with addiction. They provide medical detox, therapies, support groups, and anything else needed in the process of achieving long-term sobriety in a healthy, safe, positive way.

Stop White Knuckling and Embrace Real Recovery

Addiction is confusing and lonely enough. There’s no need to add any heartache to your situation by trying to attempt white knuckling. Avenues Recovery has seen countless former addicts leave our facilities with positivity, vitality, and an excitement to embrace their life anew, drug-free. We are here to support you in your journey with mental health professionals, several therapy modalities, and support from people who are struggling just like you are. Contact us to find a facility near you, and start your journey to a complete recovery today!

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