Yesterday we looked at the idea of building courage in addiction recovery. Today we want to see how we can best manage drug and alcohol cravings during our recovery.
Many people in early recovery are probably wondering if it is even possible to do so. In particular, the first few weeks of recovery following detox can be particularly trying, and you may have to make some allowance for that time frame.
Making an allowance for cravings in early recovery
Part of this is just acceptance: you have to realize that you are going to have some cravings when you are early in recovery. To some extent the only way that you are going to successfully deal with those early cravings is to realize that they are going to pop up and that you need a plan in place to handle it.
Later on in your recovery alcohol and drug cravings will become far less frequent and you will have more power to control them at that time. But in very early recovery you have to realize that there is going to be an initial adjustment period where your brain gets used to the idea that you are no longer going to self medicate all the time.
There is this idea when you quit smoking cigarettes that each time you face an old trigger you are teaching your brain how to deal with that trigger without resorting to nicotine use. For example, you drive your car to work and this used to be a time when you smoked. So your brain is crying out for a cigarette because it associates driving to work with that cigarette. How many times do you have to do this particular action until your brain gets the idea that you are no longer going to “reward” it with a cigarette? Most of the studies seem to indicate at least two or three times and possibly as many as 4 to 6 times. At any rate, the key thing to realize here is that you have to go through the motions of life in order to encounter all of these “trigger situations” and make it through them clean and sober. Doing so allows you to retrain your brain that you are not going to be giving it drugs and alcohol just because it is Saturday night.
So when you are in very early recovery you should not be fighting or resisting each craving that you experience. Doing so is silly because you have almost no control over the cravings at this early stage in the game. You are going to have them because normally you are so used to self medicating and now suddenly you have stopped doing so (and are trying to stay sober). Every little thing in your life that you experience is going to have the potential to trigger a new craving for you. So understand that you need to keep going through the motions, keep experiencing your normal life without the drugs and alcohol and allow your brain to get a chance to retrain itself. You cannot expect to just sober up one day and then never have a craving ever again; this is not realistic. You are going to have to walk the path of recovery for a while until your brain realizes that you are no longer self medicating all the time.
So part of this is realizing that cravings are going to occur in early recovery and to simply make allowance for them. That said, we can still do a couple of things in order to be prepared for a lifetime of sobriety when it comes to overcoming cravings:
1) How to deal with cravings mentally.
2) Sharing with other people to reduce the power of cravings.
3) A preventative strategy for reducing cravings.
Let’s take a look at each of these ideas in greater detail.
Learning how to overcome cravings through action and mental techniques
So what can you do when you get a craving to use drugs or alcohol? The primary strategy is to share this information with another person that you trust, but we’ll get to that in a minute.
If you are basically alone and do not have anyone to call on to help you, you have to deal with the craving all by yourself.
You can do this mentally, though the success of doing so is going to be questionable. Some people who have attempted to deal with all of their triggers and urges just using their own mind have fell victim to relapse. Therefore this should never be your only strategy in dealing with urges to use drugs or alcohol.
Here are the methods that I have used to deal with cravings and urges to use in the past, all of them with varying degrees of usefulness (though please note that everything on this list helped me at some point in my journey):
1) Talking with someone else in recovery about my craving.
2) Exercise – and in particular, what I would call a “max workout.”
3) Vacation as distraction.
4) Live entertainment as distraction.
5) Sleep – in particular, sleeping through nicotine withdrawal, though I also slept more during drug/alcohol withdrawal as well.
6) Food as distraction – in particular, long slow meal with friends/family.
As you can see there are a lot of ideas on this list. To be honest I think if I had to do it all over again I could definitely do it with just the first two strategies on this list–talking with others about my craving and exercise.
The idea of a “max workout” is simply this: if you have been working out or getting fit all along in your recovery (not a bad idea by any means) then when you have a craving or trigger it is my belief that you can use a workout in order to overcome that craving. I have done so myself in the most dire of situations and it worked wonderfully. The “max workout” thing just means that if you are really having a bad urge to use then you should push yourself to do the most intense workout that you are able to do. The benefits of doing an intense and thorough workout will be enormous in terms of overcoming a craving. This technique (using exercise) worked for me when other ideas on that list had all failed. The exercise idea also works even if you have no one available to turn to. You can do it all by yourself, completely independently of others (if you have to).
You will also notice that many of the ideas on that list are not exactly things that can be used in a pinch. While the exercise technique could be implemented instantly, the vacation technique could not–you sort of have to plan for that. I have done so though in my journey by planning to quit smoking cigarettes in tandem with a planned vacation. This worked really well for me and I would encourage other people to explore the idea. Of course, if you need a medical detox (as with most drugs and alcohol) then the vacation idea may not be as practical. On the other hand, let’s say that you have this pattern of relapse and you always have intense cravings around the 30 to 60 day point in your recovery. In such a case you might plan a trip during that time to see if you can distract yourself enough to get through the rough spot.
This sounds like a bit of a game, right? It is a game, to some extent. I got lucky this last time around in trying to get clean and sober when I decided to move into long term rehab for two years. This gave me a ton of support and I had all sorts of help in dealing with triggers and cravings on a daily basis. I realize though that not everyone has that same situation of living in treatment for so long. Later on in my recovery I was out on my own and I still had nicotine addiction to deal with as I was still hooked on cigarettes.
Now obviously cigarette addiction is not the same thing as drug and alcohol addiction but when it comes to cravings and urges to relapse they are very much the same. And so I was able to learn a great deal about how to manage cravings and urges when I finally overcame my nicotine addiction.
When I got clean and sober I did not necessarily apply all of these ideas consciously. I couldn’t because I did not know them yet, I had not thought about them much. I just went to rehab and did what I was told and was lucky enough to live in long term treatment. But later on I wrestled with nicotine addiction on my own terms and that was a very tough nut to crack. In many ways it was harder than getting clean and sober because the consequences of relapse (going back to smoking cigarettes) were so much less. In other words, relapse on drugs and alcohol was a big deal, but relapse on cigarettes was not the end of the world–this made it much more tricky and insidious to overcome. I had to use every resource I could muster up to finally beat the cigarette cravings and even then I just barely made it.
So how did I do it? By using nearly all of the strategies from that list above. I had to try and fail, over and over again, incorporating new ideas into each new attempt until I was able to put it all together finally.
To some extent I think that the idea that you can mentally overcome a craving is a bit misleading. The craving itself is mental. The urge to use your drug of choice is a mental urge, so how can you overcome it with just your mental faculties alone? I think to some extent you need to reach a bit further than just trying to use your mind in order to combat a craving. Just look at the variety on that list above and realize that almost none of it is psychologically based–it is all physical and environmental stuff. Take a vacation. Go exercise. Sleep through withdrawal/cravings. And so on. These ideas may seem strange at first but these are what actually worked for me and helped me to some degree.
Simple awareness may be enough at first. Just realize when you are having a craving and do not necessarily fight against it. You can move laterally in terms of distraction, but don’t get angry and try to muscle your way right through things. Figure out a way to sidestep.
My most powerful “sidestep” was to simply walk. When I had an intolerable craving I simply stopped what I was doing and walked out the door. Seriously, it was that simple for me at one point. Just start walking, and don’t stop until the craving is gone. Sometimes this is all you can do to hang in there. They say “hold on, any way that you can, it gets better.” For me that meant moving my body in order to make it through my toughest cravings. At one point I thought that I was a crazy person, going totally insane, because my craving and urge to relapse was so intense. It is in that moment that I stood up and walked out the door and probably covered at least 5 to 10 miles before I came home again and slept. The next day things were MUCH better. How did I make it through? By simply moving my body. Get up and put one foot in front of the other and walk away from the craving. This worked for me during one of my darkest hours so hopefully in sharing the technique it can help someone else too. When it doubt, get up and move your body. It helps.
Sharing with others to reduce the power of cravings
Now in reality the number one strategy that I want you to take away from this article is the idea of sharing your cravings.
This takes some guts. I know it is not comfortable or easy to tell other people when you are craving drugs or alcohol, right?
We want to appear strong in our recovery. We want to look like we have it all together, like things are going great, like we are doing a super job in our recovery. And so we feel that if we admit to someone else that we have been thinking about using drugs or alcohol that we are weak, or that we do not really want sobriety, or whatever.
This idea has to be smashed. You cannot scold yourself for having a craving. You cannot hold yourself hostage out of pride. This is ridiculous. The release that you get from talking about your craving with another person is huge. You cannot afford to keep this information inside of you.
“A problem shared is a problem cut in half.” This is doubly true for triggers and urges in recovery. You have to share it with someone else.
Who do you talk to?
Doesn’t really matter too much, to be honest. Find someone you trust. Find a sponsor in recovery. Find a peer who is in recovery with you. Find a friend who has dealt with addiction before. Find a trusted parent or family member who understands. The more the person can relate to addiction/recovery, the more relief you will get from telling them.
It doesn’t matter. Find someone you trust and tell them about your craving. You may be saying “why? What for?” You tell them so you don’t have to go drink or use drugs, that’s why. If you keep this bottled up inside then it only gets stronger. If you go tell someone about your craving then it gets weaker right away. Instantly. You gain huge power when you tell others about your craving. Your ability to maintain sobriety doubles, instantly. You cannot afford to keep silent. You have to tell someone.
This is the most powerful technique for dealing with urges and triggers. Do not allow yourself to keep silent about this or hold back in any way.
A preventative strategy for reducing cravings
In the long run your strategy should be this:
* Prevent triggers and cravings from happening to begin with.
This can be done using a strategy for living in recovery, rather than just by using tactics.
For example, tactics for overcoming cravings might include:
* Calling a sponsor or peer in recovery and talking with them about your craving.
* Distracting yourself with a meeting, prayer, etc.
* Exercising as a means to overcome the craving.
And so on. Those are individual tactics to help deal with an immediate craving.
A long term strategy that can prevent urges and triggers to begin with might include:
* A holistic approach to recovery that includes fitness, personal growth, spirituality, education, etc.
* Daily habits that combat triggers and urges such as regular exercise, talking with others in recovery, etc.
* A push for personal growth that involves taking positive action every single day. Cumulative growth in recovery.
So this is about how you live your life in the long run, and how that can help to prevent or eliminate most cravings altogether. To some extent this will be dependent on how you spend your time and who you hang around with. But to another degree you have some control over your daily “immunity” to relapse based on how active you are in pursuing personal growth.
In my experience there is this continuum of sobriety in long term recovery. At one end of the scale is “relapse” and “complacency.” At the other end of the scale is “sobriety” and “personal growth.” Truth be told, you don’t really want to be in the middle of this continuum either. Being in the middle means that you are just slowly sliding down towards the “complacency” end of things.
So the only place that really makes sense for you to be on this scale is in “personal growth.” That means that you are:
* Willing to learn new things and to keep pushing yourself to learn more about yourself.
* Willing to take healthy risks in order to achieve better things in life and in recovery.
* Willing to put yourself out there in order to get feedback about your life and your actions so that you can become more effective and continue to grow.
* Taking positive action every single day and “accumulating” positive benefits in your recovery.
If your goal is to improve and grow and learn as a person and you are taking action every day to try to achieve that then you are probably on the right path of growth in recovery. This is “relapse prevention” via personal growth–a very powerful strategy for long term sobriety. You can still benefit from tactics in recovery (meetings, sponsorship, etc.) but having this strategy of personal growth in place is what holds everything together in the long run.
Can you really turn off addiction cravings at the flip of a switch? If so, how?
These ideas are the most powerful for getting total control of cravings and urges in your life:
1) Sharing your urges with others that you trust in recovery.
2) Taking immediate action in the face of a crushing urge–move your body and don’t stop until the urge has passed. Refocus the energy physically. If this does not work for you then revisit #1 as it is more powerful anyway.
3) Adopt a long term strategy to eliminate cravings and urges through healthy living and personal growth. You will not be distracted by a minor craving when you have so much positive growth and excitement in your life. One day at a time, start taking the right actions and the benefits of recovery will slowly accumulate for you.