If you’re looking to quit drinking, learning how to fight alcohol cravings could mean the difference between successful detox and relapse.
Alcohol cravings can occur at any time of the day or night. When cravings first manifest, the overwhelming desire for alcohol can seem too strong to resist.
Fortunately, alcohol cravings are not only predictable, but they are also fleeting. This means if you can spot cravings forming, you can then utilize various distraction techniques and lifestyle practices to help you beat these cravings.
Identifying your triggers for alcohol abuse, maintaining a busy schedule, using distraction techniques, being mindful, and learning how to break habit loops can all help you to fight back in the face of an intense longing for alcohol.
Beyond this, understanding why cravings happen can also give you a sharper insight into maintaining your recovery rather than relapsing.
Why Do We Crave Alcohol?
Although cravings do not affect everyone who moderates their alcohol intake or quits drinking, cravings are nevertheless a routine phenomenon. Cravings for alcohol are most likely to impact anyone falling under NIAAA’s classification of heavy drinking.
Alcohol has both depressant and stimulant properties. Drinking alcohol causes your brain to release dopamine. Dopamine is a chemical messenger (neurotransmitter) associated with pleasure, as well as reward-seeking behaviors. Additionally, consuming alcohol impacts the glutamate system. This system regulates memory and learning, and also influences the brain’s plasticity or ability to change.
Drinking alcohol, then, disrupts both dopamine levels and the glutamate system, ultimately altering brain function.
Dopamine does more than signaling reward and pleasure, though. This neurotransmitter can also help motivate actions. The more you drink, the more your glutamate system associates the act of drinking with pleasure, spurring you on to drink more.
When you continue drinking long-term, alcohol disrupts the reward system in your brain, prompting the compulsive urge to drink classified as alcohol cravings.
Cravings occur in response to internal or external triggers. Most people who experience alcohol cravings encounter a mixture of both types of triggers.
Internal triggers usually involve emotions, thoughts, memories, or physical sensations promoting a powerful urge to drink. Examples include:
- Physical pain
External triggers are environmental cues you associate with alcohol. These triggers are usually people, places, occasions, and situations.
External triggers refer to the environmental cues you link to alcohol, including places, times, people, and situations. Examples include:
- Attending a wedding or party
- The end of the working day
- Visiting a bar or restaurant where you normally drink
- Arguing with your partner
The more you understand your triggers, the more you can avoid or minimize your exposure to these triggers. Even if you cannot eliminate alcohol cravings, you can better anticipate them rather than being blindsided by a compelling urge to drink.
Is Craving a Symptom of Alcoholism?
Alcohol use disorder is diagnosed using the criteria set out in DSM-5, the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
This updated edition supersedes DSM-IV, the fourth edition of this diagnostic tool. In the fifth edition, cravings are included as a symptom of alcohol use disorder, per this comparison between DSM-IV and DSM-5.
So, now you know what alcohol cravings are and why they occur, how can you fight back?
How to Fight Cravings for Alcohol
1. Maintain a busy schedule
2. Distract yourself with another activity when you crave alcohol
3. Focus on the present
4. Consider connecting with a therapist
1) Maintain a busy schedule
If you have lots of downtime in your schedule when recovering from alcohol use disorder, you may encounter cravings, particularly if you have been relying on alcohol to relieve boredom.
By keeping yourself busy and engaging with a variety of fulfilling activities, you’ll give cravings fewer opportunities to strike. Whether you spend time with friends and family, reconnect with an old hobby, or learn some new skills, you’ll start giving your brain a gentle reminder that you can feel reward and pleasure without alcohol in the equation.
2) Distract yourself with another activity when you crave alcohol
The fleeting nature of alcohol cravings means these urges often disappear in minutes. If you feel compelled to drink, immediately shift your attention to another activity.
Here are some examples of distraction techniques:
- Make a cup of coffee
- Take a shower
- Playing a musical instrument
- Watching a movie
- Calling a sober friend
These are just a few options you have that might distract you from alcohol cravings for long enough that they pass, while also helping you to relieve stress and boredom at the same time.
3) Focus on the present
If you find tense or stressful situations tend to trigger cravings for alcohol, practicing mindfulness can help you remain anchored to the present moment until the cravings pass.
Some examples include:
- Relaxation techniques
- Breathing exercises
- Grounding techniques
- Switching up your environment
4) Consider connecting with a therapist
If you are still struggling to keep alcohol cravings at bay, you could connect with a therapist if you are not still in active recovery.
A mental health therapist – especially those with experience in substance use and recovery – can help you in the following ways:
- Imparting alternative stress management techniques
- Exploring the needs you fulfilled by drinking
- Identifying underlying mental health symptoms
- Pinpointing any sleep conditions
- Teaching you mindfulness techniques
- Helping you to reframe negative thoughts
How Do I Suppress the Urge to Drink?
As you can see, if alcohol cravings strike, they will be short-lived even if they are intense.
Holding on for five minutes while reminding yourself the craving will soon pass can sometimes help if the above strategies have not suppressed your urge to drink.
Fight Alcohol Cravings with Renaissance Recovery
One of the most effective ways of staying strong in the face of alcohol cravings is to engage with addiction treatment.
Here at Renaissance Recovery Center, we specialize in the outpatient treatment of alcohol use disorder, giving you the support and structure you need to kickstart your recovery without the cost of residential rehab.
For anyone requiring more time commitment than a regular outpatient program provides, we also offer IOPs (intensive outpatient programs) and PHPs (partial hospitalization programs).
All our evidence-based programs give you access to MAT (medication-assisted treatment). Medication can help you to control cravings, and there are three FDA-approved medications for the treatment of alcohol use disorder.
MAT is most effective when delivered in combination with psychotherapies like CBT or DBT. We provide both of these therapies here at Renaissance, enabling you to identify what triggers you to crave alcohol and also how to avoid succumbing to those cravings.
If this seems like the right way for you to start pursuing a sober life, reach out to Renaissance today at 866.330.9449.