Alcohol Cravings and How to Handle Them
What Are Alcohol Cravings Exactly?
Although this topic is contested in scientific communities, there are some symptoms that can be used to create a definition for our purposes. Alcohol cravings are a state of anticipation: we are looking forward to drinking alcohol or using other substances. This can be caused by a variety of triggers such as withdrawal, post-acute withdrawal, atmosphere, memories of drinking episodes, or emotions. They can also be seemingly random.
When we experience a craving for alcohol or other substances, the effects on our bodies can vary greatly. Some may experience a heightened heart rate while others may experience a depressed heart rate. This is the reason the definition of craving is contested among the scientific community. Regardless of that, cravings are real and while they may vary from person to person, they must be managed. We must learn what triggers cravings, and how to handle them when they inevitably arise. Ultimately, cravings are not our fault, they are a symptom of alcohol use disorder or alcoholism.
Cravings Happen In the Brain
As previously mentioned, cravings result from either withdrawal or some external trigger. In early recovery, cravings are likely related to withdrawal or post-acute withdrawal, whereas in later recovery external triggers are more likely to blame.
The human brain is constantly trying to attain homeostasis. For healthy individuals, this is a great function. Unfortunately for those with alcohol use disorder and or alcoholism, alcohol suppresses certain brain chemicals. The brain compensates by releasing larger amounts of these chemicals. Eventually, the brain reaches a point where it requires alcohol to function. When alcohol is removed, the brain is unable to attain homeostasis right away without alcohol and this is when withdrawal happens. Luckily the brain is resilient and over time can readjust itself to function normally without alcohol.
Externally triggered cravings are largely tied to memory. Alcohol and other drugs flood our brains with reward chemicals such as dopamine. Our brains retain this information and associate alcohol with this large chemical reward. External triggers are essentially reminding our brain of the reward it associates alcohol with. Cravings are the brain’s way of requesting more alcohol and thus more reward chemicals.
How to Deal With Cravings
The type of craving and its cause will determine the best course of action. If the individual is actively drinking and has yet to enter into recovery, the craving is likely a physiological symptom of withdrawal. If this is the case, medical attention should be sought. Alcohol withdrawal is extremely dangerous for some and can result in seizures or in extreme cases even death.
For individuals in recovery dealing with external triggers, we need to make a plan. Unfortunately, we cannot remove our brain’s memories of alcohol and the reward chemicals that come with it. Our alcohol use disorder or alcoholism means our brains already have a whole host of associations with alcohol that we cannot undo. To make matters worse, for those with alcohol use disorder or alcoholism specifically, alcohol is a huge part of our society and is extremely difficult to avoid altogether.
Creating a Plan for Alcohol Cravings
- First, we must identify what exactly our triggers are. It can be extremely helpful to list these triggers in writing. What is going on when we crave alcohol? This will require some self-reflection. Some examples are:
- Alcohol advertisements
- Liquor stores
- Old hangouts where drinking occurred
- Seeing old drinking friends or acquaintances
Next, we need to make a list of strategies to handle cravings when they arise. This list will be twofold. Some of the strategies should be proactive. These are things we can do to reduce the likelihood of having cravings. Others will need to be reactive and helpful the moment a craving happens. Some examples are:
Membership in support groups
Enrollment in alcohol use disorder treatment program
Utilizing a support network
Avoiding people, places, or things you drank with or at
Calling a sober support
Removing yourself from the situation
These lists and strategies are not meant to be exhaustive or comprehensive. They are simply a starting point to reference. If you or someone you love is struggling with alcoholism or alcohol use disorder, professional help is almost always recommended and beneficial.
Here at Harbor Wellness and Recovery Center, we offer various levels of care to treat alcoholism, alcohol use disorder, substance use disorder, addiction, and co-occurring conditions such as depression and anxiety. For more information about our services please call us directly at 732-847-4555. We are available 24/7 to help. All calls are no obligation and are strictly confidential.