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Alcohol is ubiquitous: you can find it just about anywhere, and it’s the only drug that’s not just widely socially accepted but often heavily encouraged. Over half of all Americans say they are current drinkers, after all, according to data from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
Alcohol’s near-universal presence and widespread acceptability are the biggest challenges in recovery from alcohol. They are also what can make alcohol addiction harder to rebound from than even heroin. In the latter case, there is at least the peace of mind that you don’t have to stumble into your former drug of choice and invitations to use it just about anywhere you find yourself, be it your local Walmart, the corner gas station, a neighbor’s dinner party or the church Christmas party.
On that note, here are seven tips for navigating this biggest challenge in recovery from alcohol:
1. Identify your high-risk scenarios and role-play responses to these real and/or potential triggers.
A study in South Korea just last year found that “virtual therapy” (the use of virtual reality sessions that simulate real-life situations on a 3D-TV screen) reduced alcoholics’ cravings. Brain scans following the treatment showed a marked decrease in sensitization to alcohol cues.
Visualizing a triggering situation well in advance may not be virtual therapy exactly, but for a similar effect, it also doesn’t involve the expense — namely, quasi exposure without the dangers of relapse. That’s why, starting early in inpatient treatment, we work progressively to identify and role-play the various scenarios that precede an urge to drink. (This exercise is best done within the safety of an individual therapy session or with an AA sponsor.)
Clients are encouraged to get as detailed as possible in recollecting high-risk situations that prompted alcohol cravings.
Common addiction triggers
- What thoughts or emotions triggered the compulsion to drink?
- Who were they with?
- Where were they, and why?
- How did they feel afterwards?
Similar details can then inform visualizations about how a client’s new, sober self will successfully respond to various drinking triggers in the future:
- Who will they call when the urge to drink strikes?
- Where will they go?
- What will they be wearing?
- How much money will they spend?
- How will they feel after the urge passes and they are still sober?
2. Write out your relapse prevention plan and carry it with you everywhere you go.
This tip speaks for itself. Don’t leave home without that list of names and numbers you’ll call in an emergency situation when the cravings strike, including your step-by-step plan for eluding relapse.
3. Get as much vicarious exposure to internal cues to drink as you can, by attending AA meetings regularly and frequently.
One of the big benefits to participating in an AA group and attending meetings regularly is this vicarious exposure to alcohol triggers. The process of listening to others share their stories and experiences is a means of becoming more desensitized to internal cues to drink. It’s virtually impossible, after all, to avoid certain painful or uncomfortable thoughts, feelings or sensations that once preceded an urge to drink when you’re listening to others with often very similar triggers and temptations talk about theirs.
4. Get the app A-CHESS.
The app, which was developed by researchers at the University of Wisconsin, has reportedly been successful in improving alcohol abstinence rates. Among the features is a “panic button” for when the urge to drink hits.
5. Focus on your breath and “urge surf.”
A craving is a sensation that will pass, often relatively quickly. The key is to avoid getting hooked to it, by letting it pass and riding the wave as a surfer would. (This NIAAA publication has some helpful and more detailed instructions.)
6. Distract yourself.
Find something to do, ideally something that will be fun and engaging and that will help you take your mind off of the cravings you’re experiencing.
7. Reason with yourself as you would with someone you love.
Give yourself a pep talk or list all of the reasons why you’ll regret taking a drink. Your internal dialogue can be firm, positive and compassionate, the way you might speak to a dear friend whom you love and want the best for.
Got a strategy that works for you, either one that’s on this list or one that’s not? Share it with the rest of us! I love to hear from readers.