It can be easy to forget that alcohol is a drug. That is, until you start to develop alcohol cravings. When you start drinking often or quite heavily, you may find that, over time, you begin to crave alcohol. You may be sitting at work and unable to think about anything except for when you can have your next drink. These cravings can seem uncontrollable. And if you find yourself acting on these urges to drink—despite the negative consequences—this may be a sign of alcoholism. In this article, we will take a look at why alcohol cravings start and how to manage them now and in the long-term.
Why You Crave Alcohol
When you drink, dopamine—a “reward chemical”—is released in the brain. This motivates you to engage in the behavior again and again. Over time, alcohol alters the reward system in the brain, prompting compulsive urges to drink. You essentially train your brain to seek out alcohol. And you will feel strong cravings despite drinking having negative consequences in your life. This is one of the key signs of substance abuse. You might be familiar with the term “Pavlovian conditioning,” which refers to the experiments that Ivan Pavlov carried out on dogs in the late 19th century. He found that he could get dogs to associate something pleasurable (i.e. food) with something neutral (i.e. the ringing of a bell). By repeatedly ringing a bell, then giving a dog food, he found the dog would eventually salivate (expecting food) simply in response to the ringing bell alone. Research shows that alcoholics also display Pavlovian conditioning to thoughts and environmental triggers that relate to alcohol. If you drive past a bar you drink at or experience low mood, this could trigger a craving for alcohol and even a salivary response. Internal and external cues can lead you to remember the euphoric effects of alcohol, which results in an urge to drink. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can also set off cravings. When you experience withdrawals from alcohol, you may experience a range of unpleasant physical and psychological effects. And if you know that you can get rid of withdrawals by drinking, you might start to crave alcohol. Cravings are usually the most intense during the acute withdrawal stage. They can, however, occur even months or years after you quit drinking. So, if you notice that your cravings for alcohol are particularly strong when you take a break from alcohol, this may be a sign of alcoholism. Cravings for alcohol exist on a spectrum. You might have small cravings from time to time. This doesn’t necessarily mean you’re addicted to alcohol. These cravings might not interfere with your life in any way. On the other hand, you may experience stronger cravings more often, making it harder for you to resist them. It’s these kinds of urges that can cause disruptions at work and in your relationships, as well as impact your physical and mental health. If the latter situation applies to you, you probably want to know how to curb alcohol cravings and get a hold on your addiction. Let’s explore some of the techniques that will help you effectively move past these urges.
Essential Tips for Reducing Alcohol Cravings Right Now
You may have tried to stop drinking through sheer will alone. But perhaps you’ve discovered that these cravings still present themselves. Maybe you’re trying to quit alcohol or cut down, but keep relapsing when you see others drinking. Don’t worry. This doesn’t make you weak-willed. Alcohol addiction can be an incredibly powerful force, requiring a great deal of effort to effectively manage. Here are some essential tips and coping skills—which you can start applying immediately—to help you quit drinking and lead a satisfying life that doesn’t rely on substance abuse:
Know Your Triggers
During your daily activities, keep a journal with you and take notes of when you notice any cravings, regardless of whether they are mild or strong. Try to figure out what it was (e.g. a place, a person, a situation and so on) that initiated this craving for alcohol. This will help you to anticipate cravings and plan how to deal with the triggers. For instance, if you know you’re going to be around people who are drinking, know what non-alcoholic drink you’ll order ahead of time, have an exit strategy and keep in mind anyone you can call for support.
You may find that your cravings are strongest when you’re not busy. This may be because you associate boredom with a need to drink. Regardless of the reason, being busy with fulfilling activities can help keep you distracted from urges to drink. Spending time with family and friends and engaging in hobbies and personal pursuits can also stop alcohol cravings. This is because you are finding enjoyment and passing time in activities that don’t involve drinking.
Think About the Consequences
One effective way to stop cravings is to remind yourself what the consequences will be if you indulge those cravings. The negative effects of alcohol abuse for you could be a worsened mental health condition, such as depression or anxiety, or a relapse into alcohol addiction. Alcoholism can be devastating—both for you and those you care about—so it isn’t worth giving into a craving, even if you tell yourself “just this one time.”
Practice Mindfulness and Meditation
It’s okay to have cravings, so long as you don’t blindly give in to them. The purpose of mindfulness and meditation is to help you be aware of unhealthy impulses, without engaging in them. The practice encourages you to simply notice urges to drink, without feeling that you have to satisfy those urges.
How to Stop Alcohol Cravings in the Long-Term
For many, addiction is a lifelong struggle—but it can be effectively treated. Stopping alcohol cravings in the long-term is best done through alcohol addiction treatment programs. Alcoholism treatment should be evidence-based and personalized to meet your particular needs. These are some effective treatment options that may help stop your cravings for alcohol:
Therapy and Counseling
By working with a trained therapist, you can figure out the root cause of your addiction and help heal any past trauma or abuse that may be contributing to your alcohol cravings today. Therapies like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can also allow you to develop healthy coping skills so that you can deal with stress and underlying mental health issues without resorting to drinking or drug abuse.
Another way to stop alcohol cravings is by regularly attending a support group, such as Alcoholics Anonymous. In a support group, others in the recovery process can remind you about the dangers of indulging alcohol cravings as well as offer tips—based on lived experience—on how they stopped their own cravings. Support groups can also promote encouragement and accountability.
Sometimes medication is necessary to stop or at least reduce alcohol cravings. There are currently three FDA-approved medications for alcohol cravings. They include naltrexone (Revia or Vivitrol), acamprosate (Campral) and disulfiram (Antabuse). Alcohol abuse and alcoholism are treatable. With the right resources, including a supportive alcohol rehab team, you can live an alcohol-free and happy life in the long-term.