Alcohol Cravings and How to Beat Them
It can be easy to forget that alcohol is a drug. That is, until you start to develop alcohol cravings. When you start drinking often or quite heavily, you may find that, over time, you begin to crave alcohol. You may be sitting at work and unable to think about anything except for when you can have your next drink. These cravings can seem uncontrollable. And if you find yourself acting on these urges to drink—despite the negative consequences—this may be a sign of alcoholism. In this article, we will take a look at why alcohol cravings start and how to manage them now and in the long term.
Understanding what happens to the brain is the first step in understanding how to endure and thrive in the recovery process. Here’s the good news: It is possible to curb the cravings and overcome them. This is our guide to what you need to keep in mind as you encounter an alcohol craving (which could manifest as an emotional longing, a thirst, a tremor, anguish, or a desire to feel nothing or everything).
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The Science of Alcohol Cravings and Addiction
Alcohol is a drug. When a drug of any kind enters the body, it disrupts the body’s natural state. We know alcohol can affect a person’s emotions, decision-making skills, and motor skills, but what happens to the brain when someone drinks again and again?
Alcohol, though classified as a depressant, acts as both a depressant and a stimulant (which is why it brings you both highs and lows). When alcohol is consumed, it directly impacts the body’s neurological pathways, including the glutamate system, which is directly connected to plasticity, learning, and memory. You might be thinking, yes, that explains blackouts, but it’s more complicated than that.
Causes of Alcohol Cravings Withdrawal
Recent evidence has shown that 50% to 90% of people with an alcohol use disorder will likely relapse at least once during the four-year recovery period following their treatment. The relapse rate for alcohol is similar to that for nicotine and heroin addiction. Some researchers believe the high rate of relapse for alcohol and drug addicts is due to impaired control caused by chemical changes that have taken place in the brains of alcoholics and addicts, changing the brain’s reward system.
Changes in Brain Chemistry
Over time, alcohol use begins to affect the neurotransmitters, or chemical messengers, in your brain. These changes can lead to tolerance, or a need to drink more in order to feel the same effects. They can also leave you more sensitive to alcohol’s effects and raise your risk of withdrawal symptoms. When not drinking, you might begin to notice feelings of anxiety or other emotional distress, along with strong cravings for alcohol.
Alcohol can affect your brain in other ways, too.
People often begin to use alcohol regularly because drinking leads to positive feelings or helps improve their mood:
- A drink after an unpleasant fight with your partner might help you feel calmer.
- A drink after a challenging day at work might help you relax.
- A drink at a party might help you talk to people more easily.
The pleasant euphoria you experience when drinking becomes a reward, one that reinforces your desire to drink in certain situations. You might eventually start craving that reward in new situations.
Manage Alcohol Cravings
Unfortunately, cravings don’t always go away fully. They can return years, even decades later. One of the best things you can do is recognize them and respond to them in a healthy, positive way. Throughout the recovery process, thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations will come and go — and thankfully, what triggers you today might not trigger you next year. But if you want to overcome the triggers and avoid, minimize, and overcome the cravings, it is necessary to recognize what exactly is triggering you.
There are a number of ways to manage and reduce urges or cravings. There is no single best method or silver bullet. And some are more helpful early on in your efforts to change your drinking, whether it be to cut back or to stop drinking entirely. Others we consider somewhat more advanced strategies.
Know Your Triggers
During your daily activities, keep a journal with you and take notes of when you notice any cravings, regardless of whether they are mild or strong. Try to figure out what it was (e.g. a place, a person, a situation and so on) that initiated this craving for alcohol. This will help you to anticipate cravings and plan how to deal with the triggers. For instance, if you know you’re going to be around people who are drinking, know what non-alcoholic drink you’ll order ahead of time, have an exit strategy and keep in mind anyone you can call for support.
Think About the Consequences
One effective way to stop cravings is to remind yourself what the consequences will be if you indulge those cravings. The negative effects of alcohol abuse for you could be a worsened mental health condition, such as depression or anxiety, or a relapse into alcohol addiction. Alcoholism can be devastating—both for you and those you care about—so it isn’t worth giving in to a craving, even if you tell yourself “just this one time.”
Sometimes you can’t avoid triggers which may be feelings you have or a physical condition that comes on from time to time. Once you experience the urge, distract yourself with something that takes your attention. Then check back in with yourself in, say 30—45 minutes and see if the urges intensity has changed. And if the first distraction isn’t helpful, try another. Or use another strategy altogether.
The DISARM Method – Alcohol Cravings
Another strategy is to “DISARM” your urges. It’s both popular and widely used in SMART Recovery. It was originally developed by Joseph Gerstein MD, an early co-founder of SMART Recovery. Here are the steps.
1. Name the Urge
Destructive self-talk is not you, it’s your enemy. Name the urge as if it were another being. Pick a name for your urges that’s imaginative, strong, and meaningful to you. That little voice in your head that badgers and coaxes you. Label it. Some call it “The Inner Brat,” “The Alcohol Salesman,” “The Lobbyist,” “The Terrorist,” “The Whiner” or just “The Enemy.” Pick a name that fits your experience with it.
Develop the early warning habit. Learn to recognize the urge when it first comes calling. Discover your earliest red flag signals. Don’t be caught off guard. Nipping temptation in the bud is easier than stopping it when it’s got a full head of steam.
Immediately, firmly refuse. Don’t even consider the possibility as a choice. You have already made your decision not to drink. You’ve made it your top priority. On general principle, you don’t have to reason it out yet again. Whenever you get the idea to resume drinking, you can tell that idea to go to hell. You don’t need to debate.
Managing Alcohol Cravings with Little Creek Recovery
Alcohol cravings are common, especially when you first try to change your drinking habits. It could take some time and effort to find a strategy that helps you navigate them effectively, but you do have plenty of options for support. Therapy, medication, and recovery programs can all have benefits for reducing and preventing cravings. Combining medication with therapy and other interventions can prove even more helpful than medication alone. At the end of the day, just remember you don’t have to run the course alone — connecting with a therapist or joining a recovery program can make all the difference.
If you or someone you know is struggling with maintaining sobriety, please reach out to Little Creek Recovery for answers and help at 570-630-9354 You don’t need to manage the situation alone. Substance use disorders of all varieties are common and treatable, and there is no shame in needing help with addiction. We’re here for you.