Alcohol Cravings: What to Do?

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Alcohol cravings can be an intense, and even dangerous, side effect of alcohol dependence and addiction. 

If you or a loved one are attempting to stop drinking, it’s important that you learn how to stop drinking alcohol and fight alcohol cravings in a safe and effective manner. 

When alcohol cravings first begin after stopping or tapering off, it can often feel intense and difficult to resist because of not only the mental cravings but also the physical side effects of withdrawal. 

The good news is that alcohol cravings don’t last forever, and getting through a mild alcohol disorder is possible without intensive treatment. However, for moderate to severe alcohol addictions, it can be extremely dangerous and potentially life-threatening to endure at home. 

For moderate to severe cases, you should reach out to a treatment center or doctor for help. It’s never helpful to risk your life, and there are ways to get costs covered if that is a concern. 

Luckily in mild cases, alcohol cravings are usually short-lived. It can be helpful to keep this in mind as you go into withdrawals, and use lifestyle and distraction strategies to help you control your cravings.

Keep reading to learn what to do to manage alcohol cravings in a safe and effective way.

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 manifests 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.

woman looking down representing how long do alcohol cravings last

How to Stop Alcohol Cravings

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

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 getting help with 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, and reduce alcohol cravings to a more manageable level. 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 alcohol cravings’ frequency.

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.

Is there any medication for alcohol cravings, then?

man looking out at ocean representing help with alcohol cravings

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 cravings 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.

How Long Do Alcohol Cravings Last?

If you’re abstaining from alcohol and experiencing cravings, you many be wondering, “how long do alcohol cravings last?”.

For most people who begin the journey to sobriety from alcohol, cravings last from 3-5 minutes. The urge to drink can occur frequently in the first 5-7 days of withdrawal, known as the acute withdrawal phase.

However, as every person will not have the exact same experience. Many people suffer from existing health conditions like heart and liver disease which can exacerbate withdrawal symptoms. Other factors like genetics, level of alcohol dependence, mental health conditions, and more can affect this timeline.

It’s important to note that alcohol withdrawal is one of the most dangerous and potentially fatal come-downs, and getting treatment in a professional detox facility is extremely important especially if you have preexisting conditions. For those with moderate to severe alcohol dependence, seek counseling from a medical professional before attempting to detox. You should never try to detox from alcohol at home on your own, and if you want to know how long do alcohol cravings last in order to white-knuckle through them, you should reach out to a medical professional instead.

a group of people representing help with alcohol cravings

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. Our medication-assisted treatment program can help reduce alcohol cravings, while our expert-led therapy sessions help addicts get to the root of your addiction.

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 (877) 679-2132.

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Joseph Gilmore

Joseph Gilmore has been working in the addiction industry for half a decade and has been writing about addiction and substance abuse treatment during that time. He has experience working for facilities all across the country. Connect with Joe on LinkedIn.
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Christopher Glover CDCA

My name is Christopher Glover, and I am from Cincinnati, Ohio. I am currently in school and working to grow in competence to better support our community. As a recovering individual I know the struggles that you or a loved one can go through and that there is help for anything you may be struggling with.

The hardest part is asking for help and we are here as a team to best support you and your decision to start your journey towards a better future. Connect with Chris on LinkedIn

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Amanda Kuchenberg PRS CDCA

I recently joined Ohio Community Health Recovery Centers as a Clinical Case Manager. I am originally from Wisconsin but settled in the Cincinnati area in my early 20s.  My career started in the fashion industry but quickly changed as I searched to find my drive and passion through helping others who struggle with addiction. 

As someone who is also in recovery, I wanted to provide hope, share lived experience, and support others on their journey.  I currently have my Peer Recovery Support Supervision Certification along with my CDCA and plan to continue my education with University of Cincinnati so I can continue to aid in the battle against substance addiction. Connect with Amanda on LinkedIn.

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Patrick McCamley LCDC III

 Patrick McCamley (Clinical Therapist) is a Cincinnati native who has worked in substance use disorder/co-occurring mental health disorder treatment since 2019. Patrick received his bachelors degree in psychology from University of Cincinnati in 2021 and received his LCDC III (Licensed Chemical Dependency Counselor) license from the Ohio Chemical Dependency Professionals Board in 2022. Patrick has worked in Clinical Operations, Clinical Case Management, and Clinical Therapy throughout his career.

Patrick has tremendous empathy and compassion for the recovery community, being in recovery himself since 2018. Patrick is uniquely qualified to be helpful because of the specific combination of his academic background and his own experience in recovery.

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Bill Zimmerman CDCA

Bill Zimmerman is a Greater Cincinnati Area native who has worked in substance use disorder/co-occurring mental health disorder treatment since 2018. Bill received his (Chemical Dependency Counselor Assistant) license from the Ohio Chemical Dependency Professionals Board in 2020.

Bill has worked in Clinical Operations in both support and supervision, and Program facilitating and 12 step recovery support during his career. Bill has a passion for the recovery community, having been in recovery himself since 1982. Connect with Bill on LinkedIn

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Taylor Lilley CDCA, PRS

Growing up in Louisiana with addiction running rampant on both sides of my family. A life away from drugs and alcohol seemed impossible for someone like me. I remember what it was like sitting across from someone thinking there is no way they could ever understand what I was going through.

Sharing my experience offers a credibility and a certain type of trust with clients that only someone who has walked down this road can illustrate. To immerse myself further into the field of addiction, I am currently studying at Cincinnati State for Human and Social Services.  I hope I never forget where I came from, if I can do it, so can you!

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Thomas Hunter LSW

Hello my name is Thomas Hunter. I was born and raised in Cincinnati, Ohio. I am a licensed social worker.In my scope of practice I have worked in the areas of mental health and recovery for thirty years. The clients I have worked with in my career have ranged in age from seven to seventy.

I strive each day to serve my purpose of helping those in need and I believe I do so by utilizing all of my experiences to accomplish my goal of supporting those who desire to establish their sobriety and maintain it in their recovery. Connect with Thomas on LinkedIn.

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Mary D.Porter,LICDC

 My name is Mary D. Porter. I received my Masters of Social Work in 2008 from The University of Cincinnati. I received My Licensed Independent Chemical Dependency Counselor Licensure in 2001. I retired from The Department of Veteran Affairs Medical Center on April 14, 2014. Currently, I am the Associate Clinical Director for The Ohio Community Health Recovery Centers in Cincinnati.. Due to the fourth wave of the Opioid Epidemic in 2019,  I decided to enter back into the workforce to assist the addicted population.

The overdoses were astounding and I wanted to help.  I consider myself  to be an advocate for the addicted population. My compassion, resilience, empathy, wisdom, knowledge, experience and  love I have for this forgotten population goes beyond words. I consider what I do for the addicted population as a calling versus a “career,” because I too was once an “addict and alcoholic.” Today I am 45.5 years alcohol and substance free.

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Ben Lemmon LCDC III

Hello, my name is Ben Lemmon, and I’m the Vice President and Clinical Director at Ohio Community Health Recovery Centers. I’ve been working in the addiction and mental health field since 2013 and decided to enter the field after overcoming my own challenges with addiction.

When I first meet a client, I always explain to them that the reason we are meeting is because they are not capable of obtaining or maintaining sobriety, and my goal is to create a person that can maintain sobriety. I believe a person’s personality is made up of their thoughts, feelings and actions and my job is to help clients identify the thoughts, feelings and actions that have them disconnected from recovery and provide them with the tools to live a healthy and happy life. Connect with Ben on LinkedIn