7 Practical Tips for Dealing with Alcohol Cravings
Are you struggling with alcohol cravings? Unfortunately, in recovery from alcohol addiction, cravings do happen. They can feel unpleasant, but more importantly, they can cause relapse.
For people with Alcohol Use Disorder, relapse can be fatal. Which is why it is so important to know when alcohol cravings are likely to occur, how to minimise the frequency of them, and what you can do to stop them in their tracks.
In this article, we give 7 tips to handle alcohol cravings when they happen and help you to make a plan to reduce their frequency and severity.
What is an alcohol craving?
In the DSM-5, there is a list of 11 symptoms of alcoholism. If someone has 2-3 symptoms present they have mild alcoholism, 4-5 symptoms present indicates moderate alcoholism, and 6 or more shows that the person has severe alcoholism.
Cravings are one of the criteria on this list, and are indicated by having a “strong desire or urge to use alcohol”. For people with an Alcohol Use Disorder, alcohol cravings can be so intense that they have no choice but to give in, just to stop the relentless and overwhelming thoughts.
Other items on the DSM-5 criteria list for alcoholism include:
- Alcohol is drunk in larger amounts or for a longer time than the person intended.
- Not being able to cut down or control drinking
- Someone spending a long time trying to get, use, or recover from alcohol use
- Failure to meet work, school or home obligations
- Continuing to use alcohol despite it causing social or interpersonal problems
- Social, work and recreational activities stopped or reduced due to drinking
- Using alcohol in dangerous situations
- Continuing to drink despite knowledge of physical or mental problems caused or made worse by drinking
- Increased tolerance, meaning more alcohol is needed for the same results as before
- Withdrawal, unless alcohol or another similar substance is taken
7 Short-term tips to deal with cravings for alcohol
Here are a few quick fixes that will help you to keep alcohol cravings at bay in the short term. These should be used in combination with longer-term strategies, which are detailed below.
1. Experiencing alcohol cravings? - Check how you’re feeling
Some addiction experts recommend that you use HALT - ask yourself if you are hungry, angry, lonely or tired. These all play a big part in alcohol cravings developing, as they can all cause emotional distress. This in turn may lead to you picking up a drink. You can also add other negative feelings to this list. Feeling bored, guilty or fearful can have the same effect. Here are a few ideas if you feel like this:
- Hungry. Eat something!
- Angry. Practice 4-7-8 breathing, write about your anger, or talk with someone about it
- Lonely. Call someone, or even better, speak with someone face to face.
- Tired. Sleep, meditate or lie down and relax
- Bored. Change what you’re doing or connect with another person
- Guilty. Write or talk about what you’re feeling guilty about
- Fearful. Move away from the thing you are fearful of, or talk about it with someone who understands
2. Stop reminiscing and see the reality of your alcoholism
Often, when alcoholics think about drinking, they glamorize the idea of it. They might reminisce about the time they had an awesome time partying with their friends, the occasions when they had a romantic evening drinking wine with a partner, or a time when they were (or thought they were) drinking without consequences.
The reality is, though, that once someone is experiencing alcoholism, these (supposedly) carefree times with alcohol are gone. The chances are that the person is seeing these events with rose-tinted spectacles.
When we remember these times, our brains can conveniently forget that the time we spent with our friends ended in a big bust-up, the romantic evening led to a less romantic morning spent throwing up with alcohol poisoning, and the times that we spent drinking supposedly without consequences played a contributing role to our drinking problem. Euphoric recall can be a very dangerous thing, so ensure you are recalling the truth of what drink did to you and not for you.
3. Exercise to diminish alcohol cravings
Move a muscle, change a thought. If you are beginning to feel overwhelmed and like you may pick up a drink soon, exercise can be a great way of changing your thoughts and feelings. Just getting out of your environment can help, the endorphins that come with alcohol boost your mood. You will also get a feeling of accomplishment afterwards. Some people find strenuous exercise best, but any is better than none.
4. Enjoy a hobby
Engaging in one of your hobbies is a great way to keep alcohol cravings at bay. It means that you will focus on one thing for a while, bringing you back into the moment, and helping you to forget whatever was on your mind.
If you don’t yet have any hobbies, now is the time to start! Some people in early recovery don’t have an idea of what they like. They may have been drinking for so long that they have forgotten, or started drinking when they were so young that they didn’t develop any hobbies. If you don’t know what activities you like, try as many as possible. You’ll be sure to find something you can get stuck into.
5. Talk about your alcohol cravings
Talking is a powerful tool to release thoughts and feelings. By talking about your cravings, you can diminish them, or even let go of them entirely. You could talk with friends or family members about these, though many people find that the best people to speak with are those who have had experiences of cravings themselves.
If you do not have any people to contact who have problems with addiction, consider joining a support group. Support groups allow you to share about your cravings in meetings, talk with your peers about them, and speak with a sponsor about them if the support group you choose has sponsorship.
6. Urge surfing
Urges surfing is a technique, developed by Dr Alan Marlatt, that can help to address impulsive behaviours like binge eating, alcoholism or addiction.
It involves watching your urges go by, instead of trying to fight with them. The technique does not involves willpower and instead asks you to observe how you feel when the cravings/urges arrive.
As alcohol cravings rarely last 30 minutes, urge surfing asks you to wait the feeling out, safe in the knowledge that it will pass. This technique may not work for people with severe alcoholism.
7. Eat something sweet
Especially in the early days of sobriety, sugar cravings can easily be mistaken for alcohol cravings. Whilst in active alcoholism, it is likely that you will have consumed most of your sugar and carbohydrates from alcohol. The body will take time to adapt to this loss. Therefore, if you experience alcohol cravings, eating something sweet can be a quick way to resolve the unpleasant urges.
Long-term strategies for alcohol craving
To maintain long-term sobriety you must have long-term strategies. Here are a few ways that you can address cravings at their root.
Alcoholics Anonymous was set up more than 80 years ago, with the intention with helping people with alcohol problems to recover from alcoholism. There are no requirements for membership, but it is recommended that you regularly attend meetings, get a sponsor (someone with experience of recovering from alcoholism) and do the steps.
There are 12 steps. They are designed to help you “clear away the wreckage of the past”. This involves listing and sharing with your sponsor resentments that you have with other people and wrongdoings that you have done in the past. Doing the steps helps you to gain a clearer understanding of who you are, and diminishes some of the guilt from your drinking days.
Shadow Work for Alcohol Cravings
Shadow work is the process of facing and integrating the parts of ourselves that we have disowned or repressed. It is a journey of self-discovery and healing that can lead to a greater sense of wholeness and self-acceptance.
Shadow work can be challenging and uncomfortable, but it can also be tremendously rewarding. It is an essential part of our personal growth and evolution in recovery from addiction.
Alcoholics Anonymous does involve shadow work, but it is not the only “show in town”. There are various others shadow work methods that you can use as part of a program of alcohol recovery. One such method is the Connections workshop, which was developed by Terry Lige. These two or three days workshops, which are now run by different trained facilitators around the globe, help the people who do them to experience breakthroughs that help them to discover and heal elements of themselves that they have been repressing.
People who attend rehab are usually given therapy sessions throughout their stay. These sessions typically address previous life experiences which led them to addiction, as well as thought processes that may have been keeping them stuck in addiction.
There is good reason for this, as there is a great deal of evidence that shows that therapy can play a massive role in helping people to stay sober.
Therapy can help people to address their alcohol cravings. Someone may have had an incident when they were a child where they were attacked by a dog. Now, they become fearful whenever they hear a dog barking, and they feel like they need to drink to quell this feeling. A therapist may guide a patient to talk about the event and the impact that it has had on them, and in doing so reduce the amount of fear and related cravings that they feel around dogs.
Mindfulness practices like yoga and meditation can decrease cravings while you are practising them and immediately after. They can also progressively reduce the cravings that you feel over a long period of time.
One of the main ways that mindfulness can do this is by reducing your reactivity to events. If someone cuts you off in traffic, it will be far easier to keep your cool and not spiral off into a chain of thoughts that might lead to relapse.
Medication Assisted Treatment for Alcohol Cravings
Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT) is used for a variety of addictions to different substances to help people maintain sobriety and to reduce cravings.
Antabuse (disulfiram) is one of the most popular MAT to treat alcoholism. It works by blocking the conversion of acetaldehyde to acetic acid, which results in anyone taking it becoming ill after taking it. Side-effects of drinking after taking Antabuse include:
- Vision problems
- Difficulty breathing
- Mental confusion
After Antabuse is taken for a prolonged period of time, it may reduce cravings for alcohol by having the person using the Antabuse feel ill when they drink.
Antabuse is unlikely to prove effective at maintaining long-term sobriety when it is taken by itself, so it should be taken as part of a complete program of recovery from alcohol.
Stages of Relapse - Why paying attention to alcohol cravings are important
Relapse may sometimes seem like it is a process that occurs at breakneck speed, but in reality, it is a slow process that happens in three stages. Having an understanding of these stages can help you to spot the signs before it is too late.
At this stage, someone may not yet be thinking about taking alcohol or drugs, but they have emotions or behaviours that, when kept unchecked, may lead to relapse in the future.
Some signs of emotional relapse include:
- Not talking about your emotions
- Not asking for help
- Stopping going to support group meetings
- Poor sleeping habits
- Poor eating habits
- Focusing on the flaws of other people
- Not taking time to de-stress
- Poor emotional and physical self-care
During a mental relapse, a person starts thinking about drinking. Fantasies involving alcohol may start taking place, and someone may start planning where and how they might start drinking. It is normal for people who are in early recovery to have thoughts like this, but someone who is thinking along these lines must talk with someone about it, to prevent physical relapse.
Signs of mental relapse include:
- Thinking of ways to control drinking
- Minimizing ramifications of past drinking
- Looking for opportunities to drink
- Planning relapse
- Thinking of ways to justify drinking
At physical relapse, someone has already started drinking. Once someone has reached this point, it can be difficult for them to get back to sobriety again. This is why it is so crucial to know the signs and catch a relapse way before this happens.
Reach out for help
There are many things that you can do to reduce the chance of you relapsing, both in the short term and long term. If you are able to put into practice the concepts within this article, you will be well on your way to staying sober in the future.
One of the overriding keys to long-term sobriety is understanding that you need help and cannot do it alone. This help will be needed very intensively in the early days but should remain available whenever needed. Relapses can be prevented by acting early.
The most simple way of dealing with alcohol cravings is to reach out to another recovering alcoholic. They won't judge you for experiencing thoughts about alcohol. They can also share their experience with you as to how they deal with cravings.
You can access support live within our Recoverlution platform by joining in with the meetings. You can also create your own circle of support. Our Wellness hub has proven methods of self care and well-being that will place your focus in a positive and nurturing direction
Author - Gilly