How Can I Control Alcohol Cravings?

When you have recovered from alcohol addiction, cravings can be one of the biggest obstacles in your life.

They are a defining characteristic of alcohol dependence [1], and after months of recovery, they can be really difficult to manage.

Cravings can affect you on both an emotional and physical level, and they can make you doubt the healthy progress you have made since starting treatment.

While there is no way to ‘control’ cravings, understanding what they are, how they are triggered, and what you can do to ease them can make all the difference when it comes to healthily managing them.

Cravings – What are they?

Handling cravings is all about letting them pass. To do this, you need to have a good idea of what they are.

When an alcohol addiction develops, the structure of the brain changes. An individual drinks alcohol to experience the pleasurable effects it has – caused by the release of the hormone, dopamine – and after substantial use, a connection is made.

The brain moulds to associate the feeling of pleasure with alcohol, and so encourages the individual to seek it out when they want to feel good.

This can be in response to a stressful situation, or a desire to improve their mood. The brain wants to experience pleasure, and the repetitive use of the substance means alcohol is the first thing it thinks of.

When an individual has recovered, however, this association hasn’t quite disappeared. It may be weaker, allowing them to go without alcohol for long periods of time, but the brain still thinks of alcohol in times when it wants to experience pleasure.

Cravings, therefore, are what happens when the brain reverts back to this association, and encourages the recovered individual to seek out alcohol in order to attain its pleasurable effects.

These cravings are brief but strong, and usually, only last as long as an individual is exposed to a certain situation.

What can trigger cravings?

There are certain instances that make the brain more susceptible to this pattern of thinking. These are known as triggers.

Triggers are likely to cause you to want to drink alcohol, make you consider it, or bring about physical withdrawal symptoms that you might not have experienced since before you entered treatment.

These situations can be scary, so being able to identify them is important.

Possible triggers might include:

  • Places where you may have consumed large amounts of alcohol in the past
  • People who may still drink heavily, or who may encourage you to relapse
  • Objects or situations you associate with drinking, such as a certain beer glass or a particular television programme
  • Negative emotions, such as hunger or anger, which might make you susceptible to the desire to drink

These examples can trigger cravings because they remind the brain of the association between alcohol and pleasure.

They bring back memories of instances where drinking has been beneficial, and the brain quickly reconnects the pieces.

This is why a certain location or person might draw up feelings or desires relating to alcohol that you had previously thought you had suppressed.

Tips for controlling cravings

When cravings strike, it doesn’t mean that recovery hasn’t worked. The fact that you are experiencing cravings, rather than immediately using alcohol again, shows that significant progress has been made.

However, cravings can still be difficult to manage. When they occur, there are some things you might want to remember to improve your chances of resisting.

Take a look around

If you feel the desire to drink, stop and take a look at what situation you are in. Where are you? Who are you with? What are you feeling?

Often, your craving will be triggered by one of the situations listed above. It is important to acknowledge what might be causing you to feel how you do in the moment, and then remove yourself from the situation.

This might involve you leaving a certain restaurant, distancing yourself from a certain friend, or turning off a triggering television show.

A common trick is to ask yourself if you are feeling hungry, angry, lonely, or tired. These emotions can induce cravings, and so sometimes you might feel better if you ate, took a nap, or called a friend.

Remember that it’s temporary

Cravings are short-lived and predictable [2]. They rise, then pass. They don’t last forever.

They can only last for so long, so it is important to try and occupy your mind when they arise. Distract yourself for a little bit, allow them to pass, then continue with your day.

To fill the time, you might take up reading, running, or another hobby that takes your mind off the desire to drink long enough for it to pass.

Learn stress techniques

When cravings strike, the emotional and psychological impact can be hard to withstand. You might become panicked, anxious, or feel like drinking will ease the stress you are currently experiencing.

In this situation, it can be useful to learn and practise stress management techniques. These can be good for easing your mind, calming your body down, and keeping the negative emotions of cravings under control until they fade away.

If you experience cravings and are unsure of how to handle it, you could try:

  • Taking a short walk.
  • Closing your eyes and focussing on your breathing.
  • Speaking to a friend or family member

While they will not stop the cravings, these techniques can keep you relaxed enough while they pass so that they do not influence your behaviour.

Healthy habits

Maintaining healthy routines and lifestyle choices can help ease the influence of cravings when they appear.

Eating a balanced diet, engaging in frequent and fun exercise, and having good social connections can all improve your mental health and give you the pleasure your brain so frequently associates with alcohol.

It is important to remember that your brain doesn’t want alcohol, but the pleasurable effect it has on the brain. If you can supply this through healthier channels, then the impact of your cravings can be reduced.

Further treatment

If you struggle with cravings to the point where you are unable to combat them at all, another option might be taking up further treatment.

This may seem like a step back, but that is not the case. Treatment will only improve your ability to handle cravings, and receiving professional advice can help you develop the healthy habits and routines mentioned above.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is a popular treatment method for addiction, and it can help you to identify harmful behaviours and develop healthier thought processes. Even if you have already tried it, reaffirming the positive routines you have previously learned can help you cope better with cravings.

A further step might involve taking medication to ease the impacts of difficult cravings. If you are really struggling, these can be a temporary relief from the physical urge to drink while you improve your other, more long-term, coping mechanisms.