Alcohol And drugs make changes to the brain over time, including the slowing down of neural pathways and an overall shrinkage of the brain as a whole. But, before the brain is permanently affected, drinking and using drugs heavily leads to dependence to their substance(s) of choice, which makes it far more difficult to stop drinking or using.
An substance dependence will mean the onset of withdrawal symptoms when attempting to go without drugs or alcohol for any significant amount of time, as well as an increased tolerance to that substance. Alcohol and drug dependence is also characterised by an intense desire to drink or use that can make it feel difficult, if not impossible, to avoid it. This is called a craving. Similar to when you are hungry, your body tells you that I wants chocolate so you eat it, that then satisfies the craving until your body next tells them to eat more.
Why Do Cravings Occur?
There are three models that can be used to explain why drug and alcohol addicts crave their substance(s) of choice when they are not drinking or using depending on your point of view, you may agree with all or just one of the models but all are valid reasons to explain why:
Reinforcement is an unconscious learning process which leads to repetition of any behaviour that results in a positive outcome. In this case, drinking or using lifts your mood and makes you feel more confident and “high”. Every time you start drinking or using, the worries and emotions that you are struggling with are temporarily lifted, reinforcing the idea that drugs or alcohol will make you feel good. Thus, environmental triggers such as spending time with friends that you usually drink with, being in a pub or getting text messages from dealers can trigger a craving.
Cognitive Processing Model
The cognitive processing model says that in those that drink or use every day, or very regularly, alcohol or drug use has become so habitual that it requires more mental and physical effort not to use or drink than it would be to use or drink. Beyond the physical and mental withdrawal symptoms when trying to quit, breaking the habit of using substances require a complete change to your routine and lifestyle to avoid cravings. See our article on planning your daily routine in recovery for more information.
Incentive Sensitisation Model
This model marks the subconscious link between drugs and alcohol and the feelings that they induce. Alcohol and drugs alter the levels of two neurotransmitters: dopamine and GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), which are responsible for feeling pleasure and neuron-to-neuron communication. With continued alcohol or drug abuse, these levels become changed so that the presence of substances are required to bring these levels back up to normal. Put simply, the brain has been chemically altered to crave drugs and alcohol, which is why substance cravings can last for years, even after the person is clean and sober.
Symptoms Of Drug & Alcohol Cravings
It is hard to put into words exactly what a craving feels like unless you have had one yourself. Other than the certainty that the discomfort you are in will recede once you have a drink or used drugs. Broken down, symptoms include but are not limited to:
- Preoccupation with drinking or using
- Feeling uneasy
- Mood swings
- Difficulty sleeping
- An inability to think clearly
- Constant yawning
- Restlessness and agitation
- Problem with passing waste products
- Lack/craving of hunger or thirst
- Visual disturbances
- Reduced level of consciousness
- Worsening of current mental health conditions
- Many more depending on the substance!
Triggers for drug and alcohol cravings can be psychological, environmental or physical. Psychological triggers are usually events which make you feel an excess of emotion, or offer a situation where it is culturally acceptable or even expected to drink or use. A death or relationship break up, feeling anxiety or physical pain, or even a happy event such as a birthday or work event could be triggers. For more information on triggers, visit our article on relapses and triggers.
Environmental factors will be any place or thing that the addict associates with alcohol, drinking, drugs or using. This might be a pub, seeing or being around friends and family that are drinking, or even smelling alcohol, seeing photos of drugs or using equipment as well as receiving text messages or calls offering you special deals for drugs.
A craving for drugs or alcohol will also be deepened by a number of factors, which include:
- Cues. Entering a setting in which you have been drinking/using before. Your brain is prompted to expect alcohol or drugs when you enter these premises.
- Expectation. Seeing someone else drinking or using might prompt you to think about drinking or using too and how easy it would be to join them for “just the one, one time!”
- Perceived availability. If alcohol or drugs are readily available cravings are worse. Cravings are lessened in rehab or treatment, where you have no possible way to obtain any substances but back out in the world they may ramp up again.
- Attention. The more time you spend thinking about drinking or using, or simply not distracted from the thought of substances, the stronger cravings can become.
- Priming effect. One glass of champagne at a wedding, for example, can cause cravings to suddenly spike again. Once in recovery, you must stay completely clean and sober, or risk being pulled into the addiction again (relapse). Information on relapses can be found here in our article on lapses and relapses.
- Stress. Severe stress causes issues with the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s executive function, affecting thought processes such as concentration, planning, and judgment. This can make you lose focus on your recovery.
How To Curb Drug & Alcohol Cravings
- You must commit to having a drug and alcohol-free home, workplace and anywhere else that you spend your time. Anyone that lives with you need to understand how important it is that there is no alcohol or drugs readily available to you at any time.
- Try to avoid pubs, parties or those you know are still actively using where drinking and using are the main activities. If you are not intending to use or drink then there is no need to be in a place where you could be expected to join in and do so.
- Establish drug and alcohol-free activities to do with friends and family. You don’t want to lose your social life altogether, so start enjoying new hobbies that don’t revolve around using or drinking.
- Learn coping skills which can help you to curb cravings when you have them. These will be healthy ways of dealing with your cravings such as exercise, talking to friends or a sponsor, or even therapy to get to the root of your problems with drugs or alcohol.
What Can I Do To Get Help?The following coping strategies are some of the most common.
- Engaging in a distracting activity – In many instances, doing something physical such as taking a walk, playing a sport, or meditating can help a person resist a craving for drugs or alcohol. The most effective way to utilise this approach is by making a list of distracting activities in advance and referring to the list when the craving begins to appear.
- Talking about the craving – Confiding in a Clean And sober friend, family member or sponsor can help reduce the feelings of anxiety and stress that accompany cravings in early recovery. These discussions may also help addicts identify triggers and cues that they may not have previously been aware of.
- Riding out the urge (urge surfing) – This technique is referred to as “urge surfing” and works by fully experiencing the craving, taking control of it, and riding it out until it subsides. This coping strategy may take practice but can be very effective when dealing with strong cravings. Cravings will never last forever and will eventually subside even though they can sometimes feel like they are never ending. More information about “urge surging” can be found below.
- Thinking about negative consequences – Focusing on thoughts like “If I have this drink, I could lose my family” or “If I take a hit of this drug, I will lose my job” can help remind addicts of the negative consequences they will face if they choose to give in to their cravings. Having something to lose, such as family, friends, or employment, can help keep individuals in recovery on the right track.
- Using self-talk – Recognising the automatic thoughts that accompany cravings and countering them with positive thoughts and self-talk is a powerful tool that many people in recovery use to cope with cravings. For example, while experiencing a craving, a person may think, “I have to have a drink or I will die.” In countering that negative thought with a positive one, such as, “I do not need that drink to survive; I can handle this craving and make it through without a drink” individuals will increase their self-efficacy and reinforce their belief that they really can experience a craving without giving in. For more information, visit our article on challenging your way of thinking here.
What Is “Urge Surfing”?
This term “urge surfing” was developed by G.A Marlatt, a leading psychologist who proved that there was a better way to combat substance addiction. Urge surfing is a method that can be used to help mitigate the effects of the cravings that arise during our day to day lives.
Urge surfing makes the claim that fighting an craving is useless. Rather, through identifying these cravings, one can be mindful of them and rather than try to fight it, surf with it or “go with the flow”. This may sound ridiculous, but it is an effective, tried, tested and proven method.
In the example we will be using, the individual is lying in bed after a lonely night. They grab their phone and are ready to send out messages to everyone they know.
However, they identify their craving and rather than send messages out trying to source drugs, which they will regret in the morning, they “surf” through the craving using the steps below. The craving eventually retreats and they no longer wish to send messages to everyone they know and rather, simply go to bed and wake up without regret and continue their recovery journey without having lapsed/relapsed.
This is something that a lot of people do but do not identify. Like most mental processes, people do not understand what is happening and usually have to be told it is. However, the difference with cravings compared to mental disorders is that if you put thought into these occurring, Identifying them when they occur and know how to manage them, you will notice it happening and be able to deal with them successfully.
This is something which can be self-diagnosed and self-treated.
Some Points On Cravings & Urges
Urges and cravings usually do not last more than 30 minutes, as long as you do not do something to feed their power, they will eventually starve and subside. You can feed the power of a craving by thinking about it, planning to do it, or trying to justify or compromise with the cravings.
Tip: Trying to compromise, barter or appease the cravings and temptations will never work and will always ultimately lead to failure. Having and sticking to solid boundaries (I.e. Drink or use nothing) cannot be compromised with and will help lead to success.
If you break, the cravings will overcome you and you will partake in irrational, negative or destructive behaviours with negative long term consequences on your recovery. Furthermore, that 30-minute time gap can be expanded if you feed into these cravings so sticking to solid boundaries will help minimise these periods of time.
Do not feed into them and instead, follow the steps below to understand how to ride these cravings until they are gone.
Usually, trying to fight an already formed craving is a futile attempt. Fighting cravings only makes them stronger and feeds their prevalence in your mind. This article gives methods to work with, rather than fight against your craving to let you live a more fulfilling and satisfying life.
Read the steps below to understand exactly how to work WITH and not AGAINST your cravings to ensure you are making rational, positive decisions.
If you let your cravings grow by feeding them, it will feel as if they are never going to stop until you finally snap and give in to the craving. An urge or craving is like an addiction, in order to kick it, you must identify the addiction and figure out the best ways to deal with it.
Ways of feeding cravings may include justifying the behaviour, trying to fight the behaviour, or trying to ignore, barter or compromise with the craving.
This article will give you the tools necessary to learn to cope with, rather than try to fight your urges and cravings. This article will teach you how to ride your urges and cravings and control them to benefit you rather than suffer from them long term. By following these steps, you will learn how to mitigate the effects of these urges and cravings and make good choices that you will not wake up regretting.
Putting urges into a different form – Ocean
Think of an urge/craving like the waves lapping up against a beach. They form, crest and break, then retreat back into the ocean. A surfer knows that the wave will break at one point then slowly dissipate back into nothing. This is no different than an urge/craving and you are no different than a surfer. You have a few options to try to deal with these urges and cravings you get.
Option 1: Fight the Wave. The problem with fighting a wave is that you will never win. The wave is a powerful force of nature that will overcome any person. If you try to fight a wave and do not beat it to its cresting point, you are doomed to tumble uncontrollably until the wave finally dissipates. This option will never work but is often the first resort for people unaware that the urges and cravings that they are having can be controlled.
Option 2: Ride the Wave. This is the option that this article hopes to teach the reader. By accepting that you are going to be hit by this wave and need to ride it out to be safe, you already are taking major steps into improving your own life. By riding the wave, you can control yourself on this wave, and make conscious choices to affect what will happen until this wave dies out.
How Can I Learn To Urge Surf?
Start by practising being mindful of your urges and cravings. Practice deep breathing, being mindful of your breath the entire time you are breathing in and out. Do not modify your breathing, just breathe in and out and focus on it. Focus on your thoughts.
Try to pinpoint the area of your body these sensations originate from. Notice what is occurring. The following are some examples of what you may be able to notice.
Are you feeling a tight or loose sensation anywhere in your body? Is this sensation long-lasting or coming and going?
Do you feel a temperature associated with this feeling, such as a warm gut, warm head? Does this stick around or is it also shortcoming?
Where is the sensation on your body?
Draw a border around this sensation
Are the borders hard, stopping in one exact place or does the feeling dissipate into your body?
Take note into what changes overtime during these feelings
Take interest in the experience of this urge/craving and that you are learning something new about yourself, do not be fearful of this.
If you notice the urge/craving flaming up then coming down, that means you are taking control of the urge/craving.
Keep track of the feeling of the urge/craving for about a minute. Feel for the urge changing size or feeling.
If you feel the urge/craving manifesting itself into thoughts, work on focusing on the feeling rather than thinking about it.
Focus on riding out the urge/craving like you are riding out a wave. By treating it like that, you will have a much easier time getting through it.
The Five Steps Of Urge Surfing
Step 1: Identify your feeling and that it will become an urge
Try to catch it early, as the earlier you catch it, the easier it will be to overcome. Feel for fast changes in emotion. For example, if you are at a party and all of a sudden get an urge of loneliness, identify that as not a normal occurrence and as an urge/craving.
Step 2: Stay aware
Be observant like you are a scientist. Do not try to act on controlling these urges/cravings. Treat yourself like your own test subject and really try to analyse yourself. By doing so you are able to start understanding how your body works and how to best ride these waves in the future. It’s a case of trial and error initially.
Step 3: Keep mental/written notes about how you are feeling
What physical and mental sensations are you feeling when you are going through these urges/cravings? Feel for certain areas in your body changing in feeling, as if you may have a burning in your stomach or a feeling of numbness in your spine.
These feelings are often associated with urges/cravings and will push you towards making those rash decisions to better yourself in the short run. Wrote them down if you want to as you can look back over this later so that you can learn from it, track it and see how your current urge/craving compares to others, is it better or worse than others you have had?
Step 3: Keep track of what triggers it
By understanding the triggers of these urges, good and bad, you can better influence your ability to control when these urges occur. For example, being at a party may give you the urge/craving to consume alcohol.
Or being near a gym may give you the urge to workout. Understand these triggers to put yourself in a better situation to either stay near or away from these urges.
Step 4: Keep in mind that this will pass and use a slogan.
Understand that as a person, this, like anything else will pass. Keep that in mind. Also, if it helps, think of some sort of slogan to use that you can keep repeating. Something such as “I can ride this out,” or “I will get through this.” Just keep your breathing steady and regular, keep your mind calm and try to remove any thoughts that come into your mind and continue this until your urge or craving subsides. You can sit or lay down, as long as you are comfortable, that’s the main thing! As you get experienced at doing this, you can include parts or all of it in with other mindfulness or meditation techniques.
Urges/cravings are something that affects every addict every day. Urges and cravings are something which can be controlled through the simple steps listed above in the article. Do not let urges or cravings take control of your life.
You are ultimately in control, by following the steps above, you can ride these urges until they are gone and take better control of your actions. Do not go for the short-term outcome because it is the easy one as it will have long term consequences (I.e. do not use or drink).
Tip: You can also try drawing your waves each time that they occur so that you have a visual record of your urges and cravings. An example is below but design one that works best for you!