Alcohol Cravings are one of the most difficult things to handle and whilst on the roller coaster ride of quitting alcohol, also something that when we hit the realisation that we need to stop drinking, frighten us the most. The discomfort you feel when cravings hit is hard to describe and mentally you believe that a drink will lessen the pain and thus starts the internal battle which affect us in different ways. Here are some symptoms:
- Thoughts of drinking and links to positive effects
- Preoccupation with drinking (constantly on your mind)
- Mood swings
- Insomnia or difficulty sleeping
- Distracted & unable to think clearly
Recognition of the symptoms is an excellent first step to dealing with alcohol cravings but what causes them? As with recovery, everyone has different experiences, but they are all “Triggers” of some kind. Triggers can be classified as External or Internal:
External Triggers are places, things you see or smell, people like drinking buddies and even opportunities that could lead to drinking. We can also think of them as environmental factors and this type of trigger are the more obvious and can be identified as high-risk situations and could be avoided.
Internal Triggers are more conspicuous and led by emotions. In my experience this was the most difficult type to understand because I would be busying myself with something and out of nowhere, I had a massive urge to drink, a lot! These triggers can come from positive and negative emotions such as excitement, sadness or frustration where one quick thought can blast you into a craving. Physical sensations such as tension or nervousness can also be a trigger. Its fair to say these are the most difficult to get under control and understand.
The following 9 points are focused on alcohol cravings and the methods to reduce them. I wanted to give you my best tips and advice in the hope that it will help you as and when the time arises. They are in no order of effectiveness because as I have mentioned everyone is different:
- Try and understand your emotions
This is without doubt the biggest thing that helped me, although it is for the long game. I had NLP counselling to understand what, emotionally, made me want to drink. Grief, guilt, despair and resentment all come into this. If you read my story it starts with the following: “An Iceberg has most of its mass (up to 90%) under the surface whilst the part above shines (or not). But as many a seafaring goer will tell you, it’s the underneath that the captain needs to understand if they should avoid catastrophe. This is me, and after a 4 and ½ year whirlwind and the realisation that I had a problem long before that, I kicked alcohol out of my life for good, by finally understanding my emotions beneath the façade of my everyday life”.
- Track your urges to drink
You may think you know how many times a day the urge comes on but try making a note, even if it is counting notches on a piece of paper, better still if you can note the time and location. After a couple of weeks’, you can look and see if there is a pattern forming and perhaps address it?
- Ride it out
Having some knowledge about the length of alcohol cravings can really help mentally, i.e. suddenly you get the urge to drink then take a note of the time. Cravings usually last around 15 minutes and if you count this down it can help you in terms of how you mentally deal with it and convince your subconscious mind that it really wont’ last forever.
- Drink plenty of water (sparkling worked for me)
I don’t know whether it is the thought of fluid going in or what, but I found that drinking something with fizz really helped and obviously water is good for you. I also used to think, right I’m going to flush this craving right out of my system and at the same time it fills you up.
- Remind yourself why
There is a reason you are quitting drinking and when a craving hits its easy to let that fly out of the window. As soon as your mind turns to alcohol grab a hold of another thought of why you are stopping in the first place. As an example, I changed the screen saver on my phone to the best picture of my family I had and looked at that constantly. Another great tip is to write a letter to yourself, or even some bullet points, when you are in good spirits, to remind you why you need to get through the craving. When it hits, have a read.
- Write it down
Often used for all types of therapy and even now, I keep a personal notebook to write down my thoughts. OK, it’s often so I don’t forget things but I find that writing things down (old school with a pen and paper) gives some kind of release and because I have written it down, I allow myself to let the thought out of my mind.
- Get talking
Even talking to yourself or your pet works with this one. Ideally however, it helps to have a confidant, sponsor or loved one with whom understands what you are trying to achieve and if they have also been there and got through it, then that is a bonus so this should be seriously considered. There are plenty of means including (and preferable) using the old school telephone but even contacting someone through social media is helpful.
- Distract yourself somehow by doing something else
This could even be broken down by listing different things to do, however, just saying go for a walk doesn’t quite cut it for me because it could be that a craving hits whilst you are walking so what then? I will tell you what, you run! If you are just sat gazing into outer space, then go for a walk, if you are watching TV then lift some weights or go for a shower. Try doing something that isn’t just short term but long term too. A healthy distraction is a good distraction and the point I am making is that a when a craving does land, keep busy and distract yourself by doing something different to keep the mind occupied.
- Remove yourself from the situation
Not going to a high-risk situation where you will be triggered is advisable in the early days but that is more of a preventative measure and no use if you are there. Your sobriety must be the priority and so if a craving strikes, leave. Gracefully if you can but quickly regardless and as above, distract yourself by doing something else.
Factors that Influence Alcohol Cravings
Finally, there are certain factors that influence alcohol cravings and can “bring them on” increasingly and make them more prominent, which isn’t great news, and so I wanted to share these so it can help with planning and manage your personal expectations. These include:
I think this is obvious but when we are stressed, we impact the brain’s executive function, affecting thought processes such as concentration, planning, and judgement. This can make you lose focus on your recovery so keeping calm where possible is absolutely beneficial.
Availability of alcohol
Alcohol cravings can be much worse if alcohol is readily available. Where you have no possible way to obtain any alcohol such as in a rehab centre, they are massively reduced, but back out in the real world they may ramp up again and considering many of us won’t go to rehab we should just remove it from the house, at least at first.
Peers and Peer Pressure (although perhaps in-direct)
Seeing someone else drinking will most likely get you thinking about drinking, and how nice it would be to join in to feel the same. It is your mind playing tricks on you.
Doing the same things you always have such as going to an old drinking establishment or someone’s house known for serious drinking is familiarisation. Your brain is tricked into thinking it needs alcohol upon going there because it is familiar.
The more time you spend thinking about drinking, or simply not distracted from the thought of drinking, the stronger alcohol cravings can become.
Don’t fall for the “Priming Effect” and avoid the “first drink”
For example, one glass of champagne at a wedding can cause cravings to hit the roof again. Once in recovery, you must stay completely sober, or risk being pulled into the addiction again.
Hopefully you will have limited alcohol cravings and if you are lucky maybe very little urges but in any case, I truly hope some of the coping mechanisms can help you and I would love to know if some of these techniques have helped you so please let me know.
Here is another great article on alcohol cravings from the sobriety blog soberish.co
Finally I like to round off my posts with a link to my sobriety tips. As many are either on or looking start their sober life.
All the best…… Darren