Anyone who is recovering from alcoholism will have to deal with the temptation of drinking again. When the temptation strikes out of the blue we refer to that as an alcohol craving.
So the question is, are we going to give in to these cravings and take a drink, or are we going to maintain our sobriety? And if we maintain our sobriety and continue to overcome these cravings, where do we get that strength from?
Where do alcohol cravings come from anyway?
Cravings for alcohol are a natural part of the recovery process.
If you are having cravings or you feel tempted to drink at times, it is important to realize that this is normal. It does not mean that you are weak or that you are doomed to failure. It is perfectly normal for an alcoholic to have thoughts of drinking.
The craving itself is normal because that was our primary coping strategy for so long. When things came up in our life we responded by drinking. So getting drunk was a learned behavior. We learned that it was one possible solution for any given problem in our life. Just because we suddenly stop drinking every day does not mean that our brain knows that this is no longer a valid solution. So when we go through a typical day we may see things that trigger our brain to say “hey, a drink would be nice right now!” Just because this happens does not mean that we have to give in to it.
Of course in very early recovery we are going to be having these temptations quite frequently. Each time we go through these cravings without drinking it gets a little bit easier. What we are really doing at that point is training our brain to realize that drinking is no longer the solution. But it takes time for our brain to learn this lesson. We have to go through the situations, sometimes several times, and remain sober throughout for our brain to finally realize that we have changed our solution.
It is normal to have cravings. Even after several years or decades in sobriety, a recovering alcoholic may have thoughts of drinking at times. It doesn’t mean that you are screwing up or that you are doomed to relapse or anything like that. It is a normal thing to happen to any recovering alcoholic, so don’t beat yourself up over it.
The question, therefore, is not how to eliminate cravings (because this is futile), but how to best deal with them.
First of all, acknowledge the craving or the temptation and don’t try to deny it. Accept that it happened. Acknowledge it as being real.
Second of all, just notice it without judging yourself for it. Say “Oh, right, I am a recovering alcoholic, and my brain tends to want booze. That is interesting.”
Third, if the craving keeps happening or seems to intensify, then you need to tell someone else about it. This may be hard for you to do, but it absolutely needs to be done. If you don’t share this with another human being then eventually it may cause you to relapse.
The initial craving is not a problem. You will not relapse instantly just from having a single craving. But if it intensifies and keeps coming up over and over again then you need to take action. Because eventually at that point it will cause you to relapse if you don’t address it.
The way to address a craving that keeps getting worse is to talk about it with another recovering alcoholic. That is by far the most powerful solution. And it can be very hard to do this if you are not in the habit of talking to others in recovery on a regular basis.
And last of all, if you want to minimize the amount of cravings that you have to deal with and lower the intensity of them, you can create a strategy in your life to do exactly that. Some people would call this strategy “relapse prevention.”
How to create a strategy that can beat your cravings consistently
If you look at an analysis of how alcoholics recover you will see that they typically have some sort of routine in their life that helps them to stay sober. They have a life strategy. They are on some sort of path of personal growth.
Each day you wake up and have to face life sober all over again. What are you going to do today in order to stay sober? What are you going to do every day in order to remain sober?
This is what you have to figure out in order to recover. There are many ways of doing this, many different strategies that might work for you in sobriety.
For example, you can go to AA meetings every day and get involved with the fellowship and get a sponsor in AA and “work the program.” This is fine if it works for you and I would recommend that most struggling alcoholics look into this particular solution and give it a chance to work in their life. There is a lot of help and support to be found in AA.
But there is life outside of the meetings as well and everyone has to sort of find their own path. If all you do is go to one AA meeting each day and you change nothing outside of that meeting (the other 23 hours in each day) then you will obviously not recover. There is more to recovery then just group support. You have to actually make real changes in your day to day life. You have to do some real work on the inside as well as on the outside.
I had a revelation about this process once when I was trying to quit smoking cigarettes. I was already in recovery and I no longer drank or did drugs, but I continued to smoke cigarettes and I wanted to quit. So I was trying different things in order to try to eliminate cigarettes from my life and I was struggling to do so.
At one point I started to exercise. This was new to me. I started to jog on a regular basis and I slowly started to increase the distance. As I did this I was getting into better shape even though I continued to smoke cigarettes every day.
Then at one point I had a revelation. I had finished with an intense running session and I was sitting there after my workout and I realized that I had just gone several hours without a cigarette. And I realized that this was because I felt such an intense rush from the exercise that my body was not craving a cigarette like it usually did.
This was a profound revelation for me. And the implications went beyond just nicotine and quitting smoking. This was relevant to my alcoholism and drug addiction as well. Clearly, for me, the intense exercise was helpful in reducing cravings for chemicals. Because the intense exercise was releasing natural chemicals.
And it was at that point that I realized that there was obvious power in a holistic strategy for recovery. Up until then when people told me that I should exercise for my recovery I thought they were crazy. After all, what did daily exercise have to do with sobriety? How was jogging going to help me avoid taking a drink of alcohol? These were the sort of thoughts that I had in the past.
But now I knew better. Now I realized that it was all connected, that feeling good from exercise really could have a profound impact on my recovery.
It is interesting to note that I could not detect this effect with just alcoholism and drug addiction. Instead, I had to have the more acute problem of nicotine cravings in order to really appreciate the effect that exercise had on my cravings. But after realizing that I could then see and understand how daily exercise would also help to regulate any cravings for alcohol and other drugs as well.
I think it is also important to realize that this is an example of a long term holistic approach, rather than a short term fix.
What do I mean by that?
What I mean is that if you are struggling with alcohol addiction, you don’t sign up for cross country running in order to try to get through detox. That is not the point here. There is a time and place for a recovery strategy, and your first week of sobriety is really not when you implement this stuff.
No, you have to get a foundation first. You have to get help in putting down the alcohol and drugs first. I would recommend going to inpatient rehab in order to build this foundation.
After you leave treatment, it is then that you need a long term strategy.
In other words, you don’t take up distance running in order to quit drinking. Instead, you quit drinking, then you start to implement this holistic strategy. At least that is how it worked for me. I had to build a foundation of sobriety before I could start to implement these holistic changes. Quitting drinking was step one, for me. After that I was able to start making healthy changes in order to reduce my cravings.
Why you don’t want to rely on other people to help you manage your temptations
There is a strong tendency in traditional recovery circles to rely on other people to help us manage our temptations and cravings.
So you will hear suggestions in traditional recovery such as: “Get phone numbers of people in AA so that you can call them when you are tempted.” Or they will say: “Have a sponsor and call them on a regular basis so that when you are tempted you will not have any problem calling them up for help.”
The idea of course is that if you are feeling tempted to drink then you can call someone else in recovery to help you get through the temptation.
I am not sold on this idea. I suspect that it may even be a mistake to rely on others to help you through a craving.
The AA literature hints at this when it talks about a time when you will likely face temptation and no other human will be available to help you resist that temptation. They talk about a time when you will be tempted and it will be just you and the drink of alcohol and you will have to rely on something else in order to remain sober. They suggest at that point that this “something else” should be your higher power.
I agree with this idea that you are going to, at some point in your recovery journey, face a temptation where it is just you and your drug of choice. And if you gave in to the temptation then no one would ever know either, it would be your little secret. So you have to have a way to overcome that moment and get through that temptation without relapsing.
I agree with AA that the answer to this problem is a spiritual journey, though I do not necessarily use the same concepts and labels that they use. In my experience it is important to become stronger in terms of personal growth based on a daily practice. You may have a strong faith that prevents you from relapse but I believe it is possible to have “faith in yourself” so to speak. In other words, you can have a spiritual journey of personal growth in recovery that allows you to grow stronger against the threat of relapse.
A big part of this is self esteem. If you build a better life in recovery then you are much less likely to throw that life away on a relapse. This is one of the reasons that I push people to take positive action every day in sobriety. When you keep building momentum through positive action you are essentially “building a moat of defense” around your sobriety. Of course it is still possible to relapse and any recovering alcoholic could potentially drink again, but it is far less likely to occur if you have built up a new life that is truly worth living.
Forming a daily practice that can help you to prevent relapse
One of my best tips for recovering alcoholics is to adopt a daily practice that allows them to maintain sobriety.
What are you doing each and every day in order to take care of yourself?
Another way to put it is this:
If you keep doing what you did today for the next five years, are you going to be happy with the results at the end of that five years?
What if you are exercising every day? Eating healthy foods every day? Actively improving your relationships every single day? Taking the time to meditate or relax every day and minimize your stress?
What if you are fully conscious of your emotional state every day and making sure that you do not get too stressed out? What if you are actively finding healthier relationships and associating with people who you look up to in recovery? What if you are pushing yourself to make positive changes and to find new growth experiences?
What if you do all of that stuff every single day for five years, versus the alternative of doing pretty much nothing?
You can guess what the results of this would be. If you push yourself to make all of these positive changes then you will reap the rewards of doing so.
The trick though is that this is really hard to notice on a timeline of six months or less. But on a timeline of a few years it becomes really obvious what your hard work and persistence has done for you.
In other words, it is easy to look back after 5 years and see what persistence and personal growth has done for you. But on a shorter timeline (like six months or less) it is very difficult to notice any major changes.
And this is what is so hard about early sobriety.
You go to rehab and you have 3 weeks sober. Things are a little better but maybe not much. Perhaps you are still fairly miserable with your life. Maybe you still want to drink very badly. Maybe nothing really seems to be workout out that well for you. Wasn’t sobriety supposed to be all wonderful and joyful and stuff? When does all of that start?
Well, it takes time. It is the answer that no one wants to hear. Instead, we want this awesome new life right away, the second that we stop drinking.
That is not realistic. It takes time to rebuild your life in recovery. It takes time and it takes serious effort.
But that does not mean it is not worth it.
It absolutely IS worth it. You just have to give it time in order for the rewards to kick in.
The thing is, the way to defeat alcohol cravings is the same way that you prevent relapse in the long run. The key is personal growth and positive action.
And we measure this based on your daily practice. What are you doing each day in order to rebuild your life in recovery? What positive actions did you take today in order to improve yourself and your life situation?
Your daily habits will determine the person you become in a year, in five years, in ten years. Your daily habits will shape the quality of your recovery. Your daily habits will determine whether you are strong enough to overcome temptation in sobriety or if you will fall victim to relapse.
What are your daily habits? What does your daily practice consist of?
There is no perfect answer for this. For me, my daily practice has evolved over time and now includes exercise, writing about recovery, some relaxation and meditation, healthy sleep, and so on. I am still working on healthy nutrition (got a ways to go!) and improving relationships and such. Of course this process never really ends but it is important to evaluate our current daily practice on a regular basis. You are going to become what your daily habits are, so it is important to look carefully at them.
What if my cravings never go away?
I was seriously worried about this during my first few weeks of sobriety.
What if my cravings never stop? I will just relapse eventually, right?
I really believed that I would be craving alcohol and drugs for the rest of my life if I were to become sober. Of course this turned out to be false, my cravings went away after a few weeks and I even went an entire day without thinking about drugs or alcohol during my first year of sobriety.
Imagine that: Going an entire day without a single craving or thought of alcohol! And I experienced this in less than one year of quitting drinking.
And I honestly thought that it was impossible, that I would be craving alcohol every moment of every day for the rest of my sober life.
So the message here is this:
Your cravings will pass. They are temporary. And even if one pops back up from time to time, it is only temporary.
“This too shall pass.”
No one likes to hear that but it is the truth, so accept it and own it and make it your own truth. Yes, the cravings will pass. Yes, you can rebuild your life in sobriety and be happy without drinking or drugs. It is possible. But you have to put in the work and you have to give it a chance. You have to give it some time. And in order to create this new life in recovery you have to focus on your daily habits and look at what you are really doing each day. Are your daily actions taking you to where you want to go in life? Evaluate your daily practice and then create a strategy that will help you to achieve your goals.
What about you, have you been able to overcome cravings in your sobriety? How has that process worked for you? What are your suggestions for other struggling alcoholics? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!