Alcohol Cravings: What to Do?

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For anyone intending to stop drinking, learning how to fight alcohol cravings could make the difference between sustained sobriety and relapse.

When cravings for alcohol first present, you might find the intense desire for alcohol seems too powerful to resist. Cravings can manifest at any time of the day or night.

Luckily, alcohol cravings are predictable and relatively short-lived. You can use this to your advantage if you can identify cravings when they start forming, and you can then employ lifestyle practices and distraction techniques to help you control alcohol cravings instead of allowing them to derail your recovery.

What are Alcohol Cravings

Alcohol has both stimulant and depressant properties. When you consume alcohol, the substance causes the release of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter (a chemical messenger) linked to pleasure and reward-seeking behaviors. Consuming alcohol also triggers a reaction in your glutamate system. By disrupting the glutamate system and interfering with dopamine levels, sustained alcohol abuse leads to altered brain functioning over time.

If you continue drinking alcohol long-term, the reward system in your brain is continually disrupted, prompting the compulsive urge to consume alcohol that characterizes alcohol cravings.

Craving alcohol manifest in response to triggers, either internal or external. Most people who encounter alcohol cravings are triggered by both internal and external factors.

Internal triggers are typically associated with memories, emotions, thoughts, or physical sensations. These triggers provoke an intense urge to drink alcohol.

Common Triggers

Common triggers for alcohol include:

  • Sadness
  • Anxiety
  • Stress
  • Irritation
  • Anger
  • Discomfort
  • Physical pain

External triggers, by contrast, are environmental cues that you strongly associate with alcohol. Most external triggers are people, places, things, or occasions. Common examples include:

  • The end of a working day.
  • Arguing with your spouse.
  • Attending a party or wedding.
  • Visiting a bar where you usually drink.

The more aware you become of your personal triggers for alcohol abuse, the more you can limit your exposure to those triggers.

How to Stop Alcohol Cravings

Is your internet search history is filled with entries like “What do when I crave alcohol”, “how to curb alcohol craving”, or “how long do alcohol cravings last”?

If so, here are some simple ways to control alcohol cravings during detox and recovery:

  1. Creating and maintaining a busy schedule during recovery
  2. Practicing mindfulness by focusing on the present
  3. Using distracting techniques for fighting alcohol cravings
  4. Discovering how to interrupt habit loops
  5. Consider engaging with a therapist

1) Creating and maintaining a busy schedule during recovery

During the transition from active alcohol addiction into recovery, you might encounter cravings if you have too much downtime. This can be especially dangerous if you have habitually used alcohol as a means of relieving boredom.

Keep yourself busy by re-engaging with neglected hobbies and interests or by taking up new and fulfilling activities. The more you fill your schedule with healthy and positive replacements for drinking alcohol, the less opportunity you will give cravings to strike.

Connect with loved ones and start repairing any damage within your closest relationships. Spending time with friends and family will help to occupy your mind and keep cravings at bay.

2) Practicing mindfulness by focusing on the present

If you find you tend to crave alcohol in stressful situations, practicing mindfulness can help you to stay rooted to the present moment until alcohol cravings subside.

The following techniques can help you to be mindful:

  • Breathing exercises
  • Relaxation techniques
  • Yoga
  • Stretching
  • Grounding techniques
  • Changing your environment

 3) Using distracting techniques for fighting alcohol cravings

While alcohol cravings can be extremely powerful and difficult to resist, these urges will often subside within minutes. This means you can sometimes sidestep cravings by immediately focusing your attention elsewhere when they present. Common distraction techniques include:

  • Taking a shower
  • Making a hot drink
  • Hiking
  • Walking
  • Running
  • Going to the gym
  • Weightlifting
  • Yoga
  • Reading
  • Writing
  • Playing a musical instrument
  • Watching a movie
  • Going fishing
  • Calling a sober friend

By using distraction techniques, you might find yourself so engaged in the activity in question that you forget all about that fleeting desire you had to drink alcohol.

4) Discovering how to interrupt habit loops

A habit loop has three components:

  1. Cue: Also known as the reminder, the cue is anything that triggers a habitual behavior like drinking alcohol. Cues vary widely but usually involve time, location, the people around you, or your current emotional state.
  2. Routine: The routine is the repeated behavior – drinking alcohol, for instance.
  3. Reward: Rewards are what you gain from the routine or behavior – many people who drink alcohol enjoy the way it helps them to relax, for example.

To break a habit loop, you must first identify the routine. Next, try different rewards and try to identify the cues that prompt your routine behavior. You can then find a way around the things that trigger you to use alcohol – more on this below.

5) Consider engaging with a therapist

Even if you are not in recovery from alcohol addiction, you can still connect with a licensed therapist if you find alcohol cravings too powerful to resist.

Therapists with experience of substance abuse and addiction can help you by:

  • Teaching you healthy stress management techniques.
  • Identifying any underpinning mental health symptoms.
  • Helping you to explore what needs you fulfilled by drinking alcohol.
  • Pinpointing any issues with insomnia or sleep hygiene.
  • Imparting mindfulness techniques.
  • Guiding you to reframe negative and self-defeating thoughts.

Using the above strategies for fighting alcohol cravings can help you to avoid fleeting compulsions to drink alcohol. By holding on for a few minutes and performing some slow breathing exercises or otherwise distracting yourself, you may find your urge to drink alcohol is suppressed.

Perhaps the most effective way to discover how to control cravings and embrace sobriety is by engaging with treatment for alcohol use disorder in an inpatient or outpatient setting.

Alcohol use disorder responds favorably to treatment with FDA-approved medications, and these medications can help with the physical component of alcohol cravings. Medications, though, will not help with the environmental triggers that cause alcohol cravings to present.

Fortunately, many behavioral interventions can help to alleviate the intensity of cravings, and also to reduce the frequency of these urges. Examples include:

  • Mindfulness meditation: Mindfulness meditation helps you to focus on the present moment, acknowledging your thoughts without judgment – thoughts about drinking alcohol, for example. By then dismissing those thoughts instead of acting on them counter to your recovery goals, you can stave off cravings for alcohol.
  • Psychotherapy: Talk therapies – the most common example is CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) – may help you to understand and pinpoint your personal triggers for negative behaviors and to avoid abusing alcohol when faced with everyday stressors.
  • Personalized coping strategies: A therapist can help you use your strengths to create personalized coping strategies – focusing on all the negative outcomes of drinking as soon as you are confronted by cravings, as an example.

Is there any medication for alcohol cravings, then?

Alcohol Craving Medications

Of the three medications that are approved by the FDA for treating alcohol use disorder, research suggests that two may help with the management of alcohol cravings.

  1. Naltrexone: Naltrexone is available in tablet form or as a monthly injectable (Vivitrol). The medication works by blocking the rewarding high people experience after consuming alcohol. Studies show that by blocking the pleasurable feelings triggered by alcohol and the ensuing reward feedback loop, naltrexone may reduce alcohol urges over time.
  2. Acamprosate: Acamprosate reduces the physical and emotional distress associated with alcohol withdrawal and recovery. Researchers believe that acamprosate may also reduce cravings. Acamprosate may be prescribed for one year after alcohol detox.

Disulfiram, by contrast, does not target cravings, but rather causes an adverse reaction if someone taking this medication drinks alcohol.

Alcohol Rehab at Ohio Community Health

We offer treatment programs for alcoholism, mental health disorders, and co-occurring disorders at Ohio Community Health Recovery Centers.

We specialize in the intensive outpatient treatment of alcohol use disorder, giving you a flexible and affordable pathway to recovery.

All Ohio Recovery Centers treatment programs draw from evidence-based interventions that include MAT (medication-assisted treatment), psychotherapy (CBT and DBT), and counseling in group and individual settings. You can also access a variety of holistic therapies.

Take the first crucial step by contacting Ohio Recovery Centers online or by calling 513-757-5000.

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