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Quitting drinking isn’t as easy as it sounds, especially when you’re plagued by powerful cravings that are nearly impossible to resist. However, cravings are a normal part of addiction and they’re not your fault. Even people in long-term recovery can experience sudden, strong cravings that take them by surprise.
So, the million-dollar question is, how do you overcome these cravings so you can finally get sober and stay sober? Although there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, there are several ways you can cope with cravings and maintain your sobriety in the process.
Whether you are just beginning your sobriety journey or you’ve been in recovery for a while, you’re likely to experience cravings in some capacity. To help you manage them without giving in, here’s some helpful information about cravings and tips for coping.
What Are Alcohol Cravings?
Alcohol cravings are highly subjective. However, they’re often described as having a strong desire to drink or experiencing intense thoughts about alcohol.1 Cravings for alcohol may be experienced differently depending on the person, but regardless, they are uncomfortable and often very difficult to ignore.
Is It Normal to Crave Alcohol?
If you were or are currently addicted to alcohol, then yes, it’s normal to crave it. Alcohol cravings are also a normal part of recovery, especially if you were heavily addicted and have been drinking for a long time.
People who are not addicted to alcohol aren’t likely to crave it, although they may have moments where they want a drink. This is because their brains have not been re-wired to function with alcohol constantly present. Conversely, when you drink heavily for a long time, your brain adapts and learns how to function under the influence of alcohol. When alcohol is not present, it demands it, which results in cravings.
If you constantly crave alcohol, that’s an indication that you may be abusing it. You likely need help to overcome your dependence or addiction.
What Causes Alcohol Cravings?
There are two main causes of alcohol cravings: The way the brain functions and external stimuli.
There is a physiological explanation for alcohol cravings and it’s largely due to the way the brain functions. When you develop an alcohol addiction, the brain becomes used to having alcohol to function and it adjusts to accommodate. When you stop drinking and withdraw from alcohol, your brain still wants alcohol because it’s used to functioning with it.
Other stimuli can also trigger a craving. Like many other addictive drugs, alcohol floods your brain with dopamine. Even after you stop drinking, your brain will still associate alcohol with pleasurable feelings due to your memories. As a result, exposure to certain stimuli can trigger those memories and your brain will demand and request more alcohol. (hence, you’ll experience cravings for alcohol.)
Examples of triggers that can produce alcohol cravings include:
- Attending special events
- Being around other people drinking
- Being at a location where alcohol is present, such as a bar or a liquor store
- Experiencing negative or positive emotions
- Feeling extremely bored or isolated
How Long Do Alcohol Cravings Last?
Naturally, you might be wondering how long alcohol cravings last. For most people, they lessen in severity over time as you continue living a sober lifestyle. However, for some people, alcohol cravings can last for years or they may never completely go away.
After you’ve made it through alcohol detox, you may also experience something called post-acute withdrawal syndrome or PAWS. The symptoms of PAWS are much more mental than physical, but they usually include:
- Mood swings
- Obsessive-compulsive thoughts
- Alcohol cravings
The symptoms of PAWS can last for several months or as long as two years. Although they’re less intense than the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal during detox, they can come and go in waves, making it difficult for you to function and fight off cravings.
If you’re struggling to deal with the symptoms of PAWS (including alcohol cravings), you might need professional help to cope.
How To Deal With Alcohol Cravings
It can be difficult to deal with alcohol cravings, especially if they come on suddenly and unexpectedly. However, there are ways you can prepare yourself to deal with alcohol cravings and ride them out instead of giving in.
If you are experiencing cravings caused by alcohol withdrawal…
- They are a physiological response to the lack of alcohol in your body and brain.
- These kinds of alcohol cravings are very difficult to manage with self-control alone. Most people need help to cope.
- The risk of returning to old drinking habits is high without assistance. It’s best to seek help from a medical or detox professional at an alcohol detox center.
If you are experiencing cravings caused by triggers…
- It’s best to establish a plan for how you will deal with triggers. Work with your treatment provider or sponsor to establish different methods to cope. Some examples might include:
- Using distractions: Find something else to attend to and get your mind off the cravings.
- Get away from triggering environments: If you’re in an environment that makes you want to drink, it’s often best to just leave.
- Be mindful of why you’re craving alcohol: Consider the reason behind your cravings. Are you stressed? Overwhelmed? Angry? Identifying the cause can help you remember that experiencing cravings doesn’t mean you’ve failed at sobriety. You can get through it.
- Practice acceptance: Instead of trying to push them away or suppress them, accept that you’re having cravings and that it’s normal.
- Get professional help to manage your cravings, especially if they are disrupting your everyday life and making it difficult to stay sober. Getting recovery support and living in a safe, sober home can help you learn how to deal with cravings as they happen in a supportive environment.
Get Professional Help to Manage Cravings
Alcohol cravings and triggers are inevitable, but with the right treatment and support, they don’t have to stand in the way of your recovery. A medically-assisted alcohol detox program can help you manage alcohol cravings with medications and counseling while you detox.
At Briarwood, our licensed treatment professionals are trained to recognize and treat the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. They provide 24/7 support and administer medication as needed to ensure your comfort and success in detox.
Our counselors and recovery specialists also offer emotional support as you experience difficult emotions and cravings related to alcohol withdrawal. Research shows that immediately after detox, your risk for relapse is high.2 To address this risk, we will help you manage the discomfort and prepare for continued treatment in residential rehab or intensive outpatient rehab so you can continue with your recovery in a supportive space. Once you’ve completed an alcohol detox program, our staff will provide referrals to rehab programs that will give you the best chance at achieving sustained, long-term sobriety.
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