Cravings to Drink and What To Do About Them
I'm often asked by my patients how they can manage the cravings to drink that often surface during early recovery. While it's not necessarily easy to handle the cravings and urges that some alcoholics in recovery experience, understanding where cravings come from and how they can be managed goes a long way toward getting rid of them.
Relapse is a bomb. It is a package of signs and symptoms that only leads to one outcome…an explosive return to the use of alcohol or other drugs. This bomb can be ignited by any number of factors in a recovering person's life, but stress is a key cause in the lead up to a full-blown relapse.
Central to the idea that stress is a critical component of relapse is the notion that "hunger memory" cravings for alcohol or other drugs can cause stress. If stress can be defined as anything about change, then there is perhaps no more powerful change agent in the world of the average recovering alcoholic or drug addict than cravings for the drug. Driven by what feels like an internal piston pumping away, the recovering person can sometimes feel the power of desire welling up inside for a return to drug or alcohol use. The thought of using evolves into an obsession about the drug. These unwanted thoughts create pressure inside and a person finds it hard to turn their attention away from the drug. Sometimes a person gets flooded with euphoric memories of the drug and the using lifestyle that went along with it.
Often these cravings experiences are not just psychological. There can be physical effects of the craving that present as tremors, sweating, upset stomach, diarrhea, or headaches. For opiate addicts this can turn into uncontrollable itching of the arms, legs, and torso, and flu-like symptoms. The alcoholic can literally develop a strong thirst. The amphetamine addict can feel the physical rush of excitement grow as the opportunity to use the drug increases.
The way out of this cravings canyon of thoughts, emotions and feelings is to carefully apply craving skills on a day-by-day, or sometimes, on a minute-by-minute basis.
The first, and generally most effective, way to curb cravings is to decide - way in advance - that craving thoughts will not be indulged when they arise. The person makes up their mind, before the cravings are present, what they will do when the cravings occur. They have a routine and they pledge to themselves they will stick with it.
The second most effective technique to use are mindful breathing exercises. Surprisingly, careful deep breathing seems to restore balance within the body and the mind by allowing for increased oxygen to those areas of the brain that are working hardest to cope with the craving. Mindful breathing (paying attention to each inhale and exhale) also sets up a rhythmic pattern that can be used for meditation. Its been shown in numerous scientific studies that meditation helps to focus attention on the present moment of experience and helps people push away unwanted thoughts such as those a person experiences when there are cravings.
Surprisingly, using these two techniques for curbing cravings can be effective ways to reduce stress and manage the day-to-day changes that everyone's life presents. To accept the fact that these cravings are normal and that they need to be managed with these techniques can go a long way toward producing the peace of mind that recovery offers.