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Guide to Managing Alcohol Cravings

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Medically Reviewed By: Diana Vo, LMFT

March 19, 2024

Table of Contents

Achieving sobriety after struggling with alcohol addiction is a significant milestone. Maintaining sobriety, though, is a lifelong commitment that demands considerable patience and attention. Among the toughest hurdles faced by many people in recovery are cravings for alcohol. Mastering craving management for alcohol could mean the difference between relapse and sustained recovery. Read on for help managing alcohol cravings and discover how to connect with compassionate and evidence-based treatment.

How to Manage Alcohol Cravings

Alcohol cravings consist of a mix of thoughts, physical feelings, and emotions that amplify someone’s desire to drink, even if they don’t consciously want to consume alcohol. This can provoke an internal struggle, with people caught in a tug-of-war between yielding to these cravings and resisting them, a situation that can be both stressful and distressing.

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Cravings can be triggered by variables that include:

  • Associations with people, places, or things linked to alcohol
  • Heightened stress levels
  • Negative emotional states
  • Physical discomfort
  • Social events

Cravings may sometimes seem to emerge without a clear cause, but they are often sparked by specific situations, feelings, or memories related to previous alcohol use. The experience of cravings can be intense, as individuals might feel the positive effects they once enjoyed from drinking, momentarily overlooking the negative consequences that followed.

Here’s a step-by-step guide to help you navigate cravings for alcohol effectively:

1) Fail to plan, plan to fail

Understand that cravings are normal. Utilize a recognize-avoid-cope approach, commonly practiced in CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy), to change unhelpful thinking patterns. 

2) Recognize triggers

Identify both external triggers (people, places, things) and internal triggers (thoughts, emotions). Tracking your urges for a couple of weeks can increase awareness and help you understand and manage your triggers more effectively.

3) Avoid tempting situations

Reduce the risk of cravings by keeping little or no alcohol at home and avoiding social activities which involve drinking. Propose alternative activities to stay connected with friends without involving alcohol.

4) Cope with unavoidable triggers

Develop a range of coping strategies for handling urges, including reminding yourself of your reasons to change, talking through the urge with someone you trust, engaging with a healthy, alternative activity, challenging the thoughts underpinning the urge, and planning an escape from tempting situations.

5) Use immediate strategies during cravings

  • Acknowledge the craving and remind yourself that it’s temporary and will pass.
  • Distract yourself with activities like listening to music, going for a walk, or engaging with a hobby.
  • Reach out to a friend or a sober buddy for support.
  • Stay present and practice mindfulness exercises to ground yourself.
  • Approach the craving with curiosity, exploring how it feels to move through the craving without giving in.

By following these steps, you can gain confidence in your ability to manage cravings and continue on your path to recovery. Remember, if you’re finding it too challenging to manage urges on your own, consulting a healthcare professional or considering non-addictive medications can provide additional support.

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Getting Help for Managing Alcohol Cravings

Medications targeting alcohol addiction are designed to mitigate cravings by interacting with the body’s physiological responses to alcohol, so weakening the intensity of urges. Key medications include:

  • ReVia (naltrexone), initially developed for opiate addiction, has also been found effective in reducing alcohol cravings.
  • Campral (acamprosate) helps manage alcohol cravings and is especially effective in minimizing the quantity of alcohol consumed if drinking commences.
  • Anticonvulsant medications like Topamax (topiramate) may help in diminishing alcohol cravings.
  • Gablofen (baclofen), a muscle relaxant, is sometimes beneficial for controlling alcohol cravings.
  • Antabuse (disulfiram) can deter alcohol consumption by triggering nausea and sickness if alcohol is ingested after taking the medication, potentially lessening future cravings for some people.

Medications play an important part in managing the physical aspects of alcohol cravings, helping to lessen them. That said, they do not tackle the environmental cues and triggers that can spark these cravings. To address these aspects, non-pharmacological behavioral interventions aim to help people identify triggers, alter the emotions connected to these triggers, and learn strategies to diminish the frequency and intensity of cravings.

Effective behavioral strategies include:

  • Educating people about common triggers in recovery and helping them recognize their own specific triggers that lead to cravings for alcohol.
  • Offering psychoeducation to convey that experiencing cravings is a normal part of recovery and not indicative of failure.
  • Teaching about the effectiveness of coping mechanisms like distraction, meditation, and the passage of time.
  • Developing tailored coping strategies that focus on the negative consequences of alcohol use rather than the positive effects, a technique known as urge surfing.
  • Incorporating mindfulness meditation to help people observe their current feelings without acting on them.
  • Encouraging the support of others during vulnerable times.

Inpatient or outpatient treatment for substance use disorders is often the best place to learn these behavioral interventions. Therapy can introduce a variety of techniques tailored to individual needs, including progressive muscle relaxation and diaphragmatic breathing, which can be quickly learned and used as tools to combat cravings. Combining medication with behavioral interventions can offer a wide-ranging and highly effective approach to managing cravings.

Additional strategies for coping with cravings include:

  • Acknowledging that cravings are temporary and usually subside within 15 to 20 minutes if not acted upon.
  • Utilizing distraction as an effective method for managing cravings, with activities like exercise, meditation, and socializing.
  • Engaging in purposeful activities, such as further education, mentoring, or career training, to reduce cravings in ongoing recovery.
  • Learning stress management techniques like relaxation and diaphragmatic breathing to deal with stress-related triggers.
  • Maintaining a healthy lifestyle, including a balanced diet, adequate hydration, regular exercise, and social interaction, to mitigate the impact of triggers and environmental cues.
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Effective addiction treatment begins with supervised detoxification, enabling people to overcome physical dependence on drugs or alcohol. We can refer you to detox facilities in California where you can streamline the withdrawal process.

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Joseph Gilmore has been in the addiction industry for three years with experience working for facilities all across the country. Connect with Joe on LinkedIn.

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