How to Stop Alcohol CravingsAnna Ciulla
It is no wonder that many people in the grip of problem drinking want to know how to stop their cravings. Alcohol cravings can be one key indicator of a drinking problem— and in their absence, the negative effects of chronic, heavy alcohol consumption can seem less problematic, more bearable, and easier to justify as a habit and lifestyle choice.
But there is no real magic bullet that on its own entirely stops cravings from occurring. The only possible exception to this general rule? A sustained period of successful, long-term abstinence from alcohol that conceivably may be rewarded with a cessation of alcohol cravings. (Even in this context, alcohol cravings can present themselves after many years of sobriety.)
For anyone experiencing alcohol cravings—whether they have an alcohol dependency, are in active addiction or are navigating the early phases of recovery—the key is therefore to learn how to reduce cravings via various proven management tools and strategies and lifestyle changes. In this article, you’ll learn more about alcohol cravings, what causes them, and how to reduce their intensity and frequency.
What Are Alcohol Cravings?
Almost anyone who embarks on the journey to recovery from an addiction to alcohol will experience alcohol cravings. Alcohol cravings are strong urges or compulsions to drink that can be physical and/or psychological in nature, and that, when present, more often than not indicate an underlying alcohol dependency— if not a full-blown addiction.
These cravings, moreover, are strongest during the first days and weeks of early recovery, when the body is adjusting to newfound abstinence from alcohol. In this critical period of recovery, cravings that are not successfully managed and dealt with during early recovery can bring about a relapse.
Research into alcohol cravings, cited by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), has defined them as “a powerful urge to drink or as intense thoughts about alcohol,” and a “criterion for addiction to alcohol or other drugs.”
What Causes Alcohol Cravings?
Some of the same research summarized by the NIAAA goes on to explain what causes alcohol cravings, and it turns out there may be multiple causes:
- “Reinforcement” of the brain’s reward center – Over time, alcohol consumption activates the brain’s pleasure circuit (also known as the “reward center”), which is linked to other areas of the brain that govern emotion, learning and memory. As a result, a person’s past drinking experiences can be overlaid with emotional memories that become associated with “cues” to drink, in the presence of which cravings can occur.
- Activation of automatic thoughts about alcohol – Alternatively, drinking cues can trigger certain automatic, repetitive cognitive responses. These thoughts are, in essence, mental cravings.
- Changes in the nervous system – These may cause physical and mental distress, with cravings emerging in response as an effort to relieve that distress.
Why Cravings Can Be Hard to Resist
A January 2015 article in Psychology Today helps to describe what makes cravings for alcohol or any other substance so incredibly difficult to resist:
Craving is an overwhelming emotional experience that takes over your body and produces a unique motivator of behavior – wanting and seeking a drug … Cravings narrow attention such that current desire, thoughts, and urges would be given extra weight, whereas future goals or plans seem less consequential. Under intense craving, addicts make highly distorted choices toward easing the pain of withdrawal.
This tunnel vision desire to drink can be so irresistible—especially in early recovery when the desire is usually strongest in intensity—that it causes a relapse, despite a person’s best intentions to stay sober.
Effective treatment for an alcohol problem will therefore equip you with proven relapse prevention approaches that can help you successfully handle cravings when they hit.
How to “HALT” Cravings
One such relapse prevention tool for overcoming cravings, which is widely used in the world of recovery, is aptly called “HALT.” The HALT method doesn’t guarantee that you won’t experience cravings, but does provide a helpful barometer by which to gauge your vulnerability to potential cravings— so that you can better protect yourself from cravings (and in this sense “stop” them). The acronym HALT stands for:
In the absence of healthy self-care responses, these four emotional states can trigger cravings and in turn relapse. “HALT” also signifies to the person in recovery that they need to stop, pause and undertake a quick self-inventory of the emotions they are experiencing at any given time:
- Are they hungry? They need to eat.
- Are they angry? They should process their feelings with their therapist.
- Are they lonely? They should call a friend or work on building their support system.
- Are they tired? They should get a good night’s sleep.
In short, as a proactive, preventative health measure for those in recovery for whom relapse is a risk, the HALT method offers a way to overcome some of the most common internal triggers of cravings and relapse.
Internal Triggers to Be Mindful of in Coping with Cravings
But hunger, anger, loneliness and tiredness are not the only states associated with a higher susceptibility to cravings. There are other “internal triggers” that can precipitate cravings. These include:
- Stress – It is not uncommon for alcohol cravings to be brought on by stress. In fact, a study in the July 2008 issue of the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research found that when they are under stress, men in particular are more likely to crave alcohol and resort to problem drinking.
- Pain – Whether it’s from a physical illness or has mental or emotional contours, pain can also trigger alcohol cravings. In this context, cravings emerge as a natural impulse to dull or numb the underlying pain.
- Boredom – Complacency, or a sense of being unfulfilled or under-stimulated, can be an opener to cravings.
- Overconfidence – A garden-variety example: the urge to go drinking on pay day. Something about the new paycheck prompts heady impulses to go spend it on booze.
External Triggers to Watch for in Managing Alcohol Cravings
Recognizing internal triggers can thus go a long way to preventing cravings— and successfully managing them, so that they don’t derail your recovery. But external triggers are another critical part of relapse prevention that involves reducing (if not stopping) these urges to drink— especially when the substance is alcohol, the only socially approved drug of choice that is available just about everywhere you look.
These external triggers have been grouped into a well-known triad in the world of recovery:
- People – Can include anyone in your previous circle of peers who drink, whether this means family members, friends, colleagues, or neighbors
- Places – Can refer to any high-risk environment where alcohol is readily available, including former places where you once regularly drank (bars, clubs, hotels, work, etc.)
- Things – Even objects can be heavily associated with a past drinking habit, thereby triggering cravings. Some examples: the gas pump where you used to pick up a six-pack on the way home from work; your ATM card; or, the wine opener in the kitchen drawer.
These three triggers, (people, places, and things), are arguably much more difficult to plan for and successfully elude—such that cravings do not arise—when the substance in question is alcohol. Alcohol is, after all, one of America’s favorite pastimes, right up there with football, fast food and shopping.
How to Handle Unwanted Cravings for Alcohol
How, then, do you successfully manage the internal and external triggers that can so quickly invite an eruption of unwanted cravings? What follow are some pointers.
Track your triggers. Self-knowledge is power. When you’re able to recognize what situations are your biggest temptations, you’ll be able to plan ahead for these high-risk triggers. The best way to track triggers is to keep a simple running log of the times that cravings hit. Record the trigger: was it a feeling you were experiencing, or people, a place, or thing? Rate the intensity of the trigger: on a scale of one to ten, how intense was it? Then note how you responded and what you’ll do next time in response. (This helpful “Urge Tracker” from the NIAAA is intended to help track triggers.)
Distract yourself. Find an alternative activity that you can do instead of acting on the cravings by drinking. Hopefully, this will be something that you enjoy enough for it to provide sufficient distraction. This may mean calling or texting a friend, engaging in vigorous exercise, or giving some time to a hobby you love.
Remind yourself that the cravings will pass. The intensity and discomfort of some cravings can create the false impression that these urges to drink are here to stay. In reality, even repetitive automatic thoughts are fleeting. Sometimes just remembering this fact can reduce the temptation to act on one’s cravings.
Challenge the thoughts that accompany the cravings. Often cravings will include thoughts ranging from “I can have just this one drink” to “I’ll feel so much better after I have a drink” to everything in between. Challenging the faulty assumptions these thoughts carry can take the momentum out of an accelerating craving.
Talk it through with your 12-step sponsor or accountability partner. One of the reasons 12-step groups like Alcoholics Anonymous are successful vehicles for recovery is their emphasis on peer support and accountability. Talking with someone else in recovery can provide an extra layer of advice, support, and distance from even the most intense cravings.
Practice mindful meditation. Research has shown that mindful meditation helps recovering addicts become more non-judgmentally attentive to their cravings and accept these impulses without acting on them.
Medication-Assisted Treatments (MATs) for Alcohol Cravings
Alcohol cravings can also find relief from MATs that have been approved for the treatment of alcohol use disorders. In combination with therapies that help to prevent relapse, medications like Vivitrol/Naltrexone and Acamprosate are often prescribed to curb the intensity of alcohol cravings in early recovery. Explore how in greater detail.
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