The Facts about Alcohol Cravings and How to Beat Them

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Ultimately, cravings are not our fault. They're a natural symptom of addiction.

For those of us who have grown comfortable in our recoveries, the unexpected arrival of alcohol cravings can be really disorienting. Our recoveries are strong, we have trusted communities and support networks around us and we've transitioned into an easier stage in recovery where we don't grip so tightly onto sobriety. But then a craving comes along and triggers us. And all of a sudden, no matter how long we've been in recovery, we think we might go about drinking safely.

Although our alcohol cravings have become less frequent or completely unfamiliar since the first days of our recoveries, the effects of alcohol cravings are always the same. And when we give credence to these cravings, we might mislead ourselves into erroneous thinking (or even drinking): we may question whether we actually have the disease of addiction or we may focus on the highlights of our active addiction and forget its countless dangers or any number of stories our addiction might spin for us.

In this article, we'll explain the different types of cravings and discuss our best options to beat those cravings and refocus on the natural, long-lasting rewards of recovery.

What Are Alcohol Cravings Exactly? Do They Have Specific Symptoms?

Although there are some scientific disagreements about how to define craving, we can still extract the most important elements of alcohol cravings to create a workable definition for those in recovery.

When we crave alcohol, we are in a state of anticipation: we want to drink or use other drugs. And this can be caused by withdrawal, or it can be a response to certain stimuli, like being surrounded by people who are drinking or a fond memory where drinking was involved.

When we crave, the effects on our bodies can be variable or even contradictory: some may experience heightened arousal while others experience depressed heart rates. The point is, alcohol cravings are highly subjective, and we have to learn the things that trigger our cravings and create a plan to curb them. Ultimately, cravings are not our fault. They're a natural symptom of addiction.

Your Brain Is to Blame for Cravings

As mentioned above, cravings result from either a withdrawal or the presence of a trigger. For those of us with sustained recoveries, the cues and triggers are typically the cause of our cravings. Either way, cravings are always born in the brain.

When we withdraw from alcohol, the suppression of certain neurochemicals will make the brain demand more alcohol so it can reach homeostasis, or its normal state of functioning (where alcohol is now deeply involved). More simply, our brains begin to regulate themselves with alcohol. Without it, the brain makes chemical demands and requests for alcohol.

For the cue-induced craving, it has to do with memory. Alcohol and other drugs flood our brain with reward chemicals like dopamine. Long after our last drink, our brains and memories still associate drinking with this flood of reward. When we're exposed to a cue or stimulus that triggers those latent memories, our brains beg us for more reward chemicals. And thus a craving is born.

How Should We Handle Cravings for Alcohol?

The type of craving will determine how we should respond to it. If we are still drinking or have yet to enter into recovery, cravings for alcohol are likely a physiological and neurological response to the departure of alcohol from our bodies, known as withdrawal. We would be best served by consulting a medical or treatment professional and asking for help so we don't have to rely on self-control alone.

If we are dealing with cravings as a result of cues or triggers, we need to make a plan. Obviously, we cannot undo our brain's relationship with alcohol entirely. Our alcohol use disorder means our brains already have a whole host of associations with alcohol that we cannot undo with a snap. And alcohol is a huge part of our culture: celebration, mourning, boredom and tons of other feelings are all commemorated with alcohol. Which means that triggers are aplenty.

Crafting a Plan to Curb Our Cravings for Alcohol

As a part of any relapse prevention plan, we should begin by identifying patterns and trends. What are the cues or triggers that make us crave alcohol? We can start with a list with three columns:

  • The cues that happen to us, like beer ads or debt collection
  • The activities we partake in, like going to a ball game or trivia night at a friend's place
  • The strategies we can use to calm ourselves, like meditation or exercise

By identifying the cues and triggers that make us crave drinking, we can begin to predict, prepare for and act against a large subset of triggers.

For the cues that are wholly unpredictable, we can still use our list of calming strategies to refocus our energy away from the temporary discomfort: our cravings are always brief unless we act upon them. If we acknowledge our feelings and allow them to harmlessly rise and fade, we have little to fear.

And then we rely on our support networks for the things we cannot handle alone.

The Takeaway for Cravings

Ultimately, cravings are a natural symptom of addiction. Of course it's unexpected, uncomfortable and even confusing when we crave a drink or drug after years without. Our neurological pathways and memories are conditioned to respond with cravings, but our brains will continue to rewire themselves with a little planning, patience and time. We just have to give recovery its chance.

If you or someone you know is struggling with maintained sobriety, please reach out to Hazelden Betty Ford for answers and help at 1-866-831-5700. 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.

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