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"Kindling" And Why it’s Dangerous

Jackie realized her drinking had gotten out of control and decided to try rehab. During treatment, she suffered from withdrawal: headaches, nausea, and shaky hands. Over time, her symptoms eased.

Becca also acknowledged she had an alcohol addiction and sought treatment. However, this was Becca’s fourth attempt to get sober. When she stopped drinking, her withdrawal symptoms included severe tremors, and she had a seizure.

What’s going on? Why was Jackie’s experience so much “easier?” Because Becca experienced an effect known as kindling.

What is Kindling?

Whether or not you were a scout, you probably know kindling is the material that helps get a fire going. It speeds up the process and makes a fire bigger and hotter – faster.

In addiction and recovery, this term is used in a similar fashion. When a person experiences detox and withdrawal repeatedly, the symptoms get more severe each time. The cycle of drinking and abstaining has had a detrimental effect on their body chemistry. You might say their chemistry provides “kindling” for the symptoms – making them grow and become more intense, like a fire with proper kindling.

As a result, Jackie’s experience with withdrawal was minimal compared to Becca’s. After several experiences of withdrawal, Becca’s body reacts more harshly (fans into bigger flame).

How Does Kindling Work?

When a person drinks, the alcohol affects the central nervous system (CNS). It acts as a depressant. The brain chemical, GABA, slows down the brain. When the alcohol leaves the system, the GABA effects cease. The brain compensates for the depressant’s absence with excessive excitability. In other words, the brain suddenly “speeds up.” This effect is manifested in alcohol withdrawal symptoms. These may be minor, like Jackie’s, or dangerous and potentially fatal, like Becca’s.

If a person has experienced recovery and relapse several times, the kindling effect can occur. Their symptoms caused by repeated changes in body chemistry may become more severe each time.

How Does Kindling Affect Recovery?

Kindling has several implications for addiction and treatment.

  • The increased severity of withdrawal can make recovery after relapse even more challenging. The discomfort a person experiences is amplified, making it harder to resist another relapse.

  • The potential for kindling makes effective treatment even more important. Programs need to get it right – the first time. If they don’t, a patient’s repeated attempts at recovery can result in kindling, which can make each attempt more physically challenging.

  • Kindling makes medical supervision essential for alcohol detox. Medical professionals can carefully monitor the patient and reduce their symptoms, minimizing the danger. If you struggle with alcohol abuse and decide to stop drinking, seek professional support to help you through this process.

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