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Coping With Drug and Alcohol Cravings

Brenda Munnerlyn, RN, BSN

Medically reviewed by

Brenda Munnerlyn, RN, BSN

March 11, 2019

Dealing with a craving is one of the biggest hurdles faced by someone who is recovering from their addiction. However, with enough relapse prevention care, one can move on from the cravings and lead a long-term, sober, healthy lifestyle.

During recovery, cravings are normal, and every person struggling with their addiction should learn to address and stop the intense sensation before it leads to relapse. Identifying what triggers a craving, removing these triggers, and understanding what a craving can feel like for someone in recovery is key to helping you or a loved one with after-rehab treatment.

What You Should Know About Cravings

Cravings for someone in treatment can peak around six months after sobriety begins, so it’s a good idea to have a plan in place, well in advance, before these cravings start or get out of control. After the initial six months, the need to use again begins to decrease in intensity. A counselor can help by developing a course of action and treatment plan should a craving come up.

When we crave something, it can range from wanting certain junk foods to shopping; the sensation of a craving seems ominous until the urge has been fulfilled, either by chowing down on a big cheeseburger or spending too much at the mall. Usually, we regret giving in to temptation and vow to not do it again. For someone in recovery, cravings for alcohol or drugs are more than just fleeting temptations, but also somatic and much harder to resist.

According to Psychology Today, cravings are an act of the brain re-experiencing memories of drug and alcohol abuse. When an addict remembers, parts of the brain that are associated with sounds, sights, smells, and thoughts are heightened in a way that’s very similar to the initial experience of actually using the substance, and the need for the substances’ effects increase.

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What Does A Craving Feel Like?

It’s difficult to describe what a craving feels like, especially if you’ve never experienced it yourself. On several online forums, former addicts describe cravings as more of an obsession or a compulsion, and the physical tension is feeling like you’re a tightly wound spring or a rubber band that’s been stretched too far, ready to snap. The senses seem narrower, and the brain loops memories of drug and alcohol usage. One even compared the feeling of a craving to holding their breath until the craving has been satisfied.

For some users, cravings are like persuasive nudges from the back of their mind: “I could really go for this right now…” or, “It’s my last time, I swear!” or even, “No one has to know…”, and for others, a craving comes vividly in their dreams where they can see, smell and even taste the substance they were using. Cravings are a deep yearning, disguising itself as a need rather than a want; users feel like their lives depend on that one particular substance to help get over what stresses them out the most.

Giving in to a craving sometimes results from wanting to get over the harsh effects of withdrawal, which can include irritability, emotional instability, anxiety, depression, restlessness, sweating/hot flashes, appetite changes, flu-like symptoms (weakness, body aches, and headaches), and increased sensitivity to pain.

Resisting The Cravings

Some may find themselves in situations where drugs or alcohol use take place, such as a bar or club, a party, or social events. Sometimes their cravings sneak up on them when they’re least expecting it, like watching TV or having flashbacks to when they were using. There’s a four step method called DEADS, which is part of the SMART Recovery 4-Point Program, a non-12-Step approach that many individuals find beneficial to their overall well-being. The DEADS method is to be completed in the following order:

  • D – Delay Using
    When a craving has not gone away in several minutes, the temptation is still present.
  • E – Escape
    Leave the situation, whether it’s the bar or a party, or even switching channels on the TV. Leaving the scene where temptation strikes helps alleviate the pull of using again.
  • A – Accept
    Acknowledge that you’re having a craving and move on; don’t dwell on it.
  • D – Dispute
    Eliminate the craving through a rational response. Think about how you’ll feel the next day to get an idea of how the aftermath of a craving will be.
  • S – Substitute
    Replace the craving with something else, such as a brisk walk, a creative activity (painting, jewelry making), run an errand or two, or even leave the room; a change in your environment makes a significant difference.

If the craving is still lingering after completing the DEADS method, go home or remove yourself from the environment, or find a supportive family member or friend to talk to. You could also call your counselor, distract yourself with a movie, or spend some time with an interesting book at the bookstore. Group sessions or having a sponsor to talk to are also a great way to get your mind off a craving. No matter what you decide to do, distracting yourself with a fun, sober activity can help tremendously.

Getting Help

The most important thing to remember is to never give in. Visualizing a better, healthier tomorrow is a great motivator, and we can help you get there. Our counselors can suggest treatment plans and the right facilities that best fit you or your loved one’s needs, and are always standing by if you need to talk to someone about a craving. Contact us at today.

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