For those who are in recovery from alcohol abuse, there are two sides to addiction that must be addressed. First and foremost, people struggling with alcohol dependence and alcoholism must address the physical aspects of their addiction through the medical detox and the drug treatment process. While the physical aspects of alcohol abuse can be overcome, the psychological side of addiction is more complex and difficult to overcome. Alcohol is a highly addictive drug that significantly changes brain chemistry and is highly reinforcing in regards to the environment and people that are associated with drinking as an activity.
For people who are in recovery from alcohol abuse, certain triggers or events in their environment can lead to a desire to drink, and the feelings associated with cravings can be intense to experience. The most unsettling thing about alcohol cravings is they can appear out of nowhere with little or no warning. Things may be going well for someone who is in recovery, but the urge to drink can suddenly enter their mind. If someone is experiencing regular alcohol cravings, it is a sign they cannot ignore. In order to understand alcohol cravings, it is important to understand what alcohol cravings are, how they originate and what ways they can be dealt with in a healthy fashion.
What Are Alcohol Cravings?
Simply defined, an alcohol craving is an intense desire or compulsion to drink alcohol. When people are actively drinking, cravings keep them locked in the vicious cycle of addiction. During active addiction, people will give in to cravings and continue to drink because it keeps their blood alcohol level to a point where they won’t experience the symptoms of withdrawal. These desires to continue drinking can continue long after withdrawal symptoms have passed and a person has regained their health. While alcohol cravings are relatively short-lived, the intensity of what is felt when a craving hits can be very unsettling.
Why Do Alcohol Cravings Occur?
There are many theories that have been proposed in regards to how cravings for alcohol materialize and manifest in thought. Some of the most common theoretical models of craving are as follows:
The reinforcement model is based on alcohol’s ability to produce an elevated mood or to help relieve an unpleasant mental state such as stress or anger. Reinforcement is an unconscious learning process that will lead to the repetition of a behavior (such as drinking) that produces the positive experience. Over time, environmental triggers, events and emotions that are consistently associated with drinking alcohol can produce a similar response as powerfully as can alcohol itself. These cues can include sight of a bar, liquor store, being in the company of friends who drink or being exposed to alcohol itself.
Cognitive Processing Model
The cognitive processing model states that alcohol use becomes habitual and requires little conscious effort or attention. In this model, craving represents the effort involved in mobilizing conscious problem-solving skills needed to block the automatic drinking behavior. Such a situation may occur when a drinker finds that his favorite bar is unexpectedly closed. Similarly, following treatment, an alcoholic who is motivated to remain abstinent might experience craving while consciously attempting to avoid the cues and triggers in their environment.
Incentive Sensitization Model
The incentive sensitization model suggests that forces that drive an addiction are hidden in the subconscious. As a result, the underlying reason why people behave in an addicted manner is that their brain has developed an association between alcohol and the feelings it generates. Even when people have undergone treatment and have become sober it can still take time for this subconscious connection between the two to lose its power. This is why the individual may continue to have cravings long after they have become sober.
Common Triggers for Alcohol Cravings
Perhaps the biggest contributor to a person experiencing alcohol cravings are relapse triggers. The most common relapse triggers are associated with feelings such as being hungry, being angry, being lonely or being tired. These main triggers are known in Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-Step groups as HALT. Other common triggers that can bring forth alcohol cravings include:
- Experiencing symptoms of depression
- Abusing any other illicit drugs
- Feeling over confident and taking recovery for granted
- Feelings of frustration about progress in recovery
- Unrealistically high expectations of recovery and other people
- Dishonest behavior
There are also other additional triggers that can cause continued cravings for alcohol. One such example is romancing the drug, and this occurs when people start thinking about the good times they had when they were drinking–even though it brought tremendous consequences. Another triggers is the occurrence of relapse or using dreams. These dreams can be common in early recovery and can be vivid to the point of people actually believing they used again when they wake up. Relapse dreams occur for a number or reasons and it doesn’t mean that someone is not working their recovery. While these dreams don’t mean that a person will relapse, they definitely can cause cravings for alcohol.
Combating Alcohol Cravings
Just as their are many ways in which alcohol cravings can enter a person’s mind, there are many ways in which people can minimize these cravings. The best preventative measure is to try and avoid those people and places that can trigger these feelings in the first place. Since triggers such as hunger and tiredness often lead to alcohol cravings, it is important to eat right, exercise, get plenty of rest and engage in proper care. It is also highly recommended that people continue to be active in 12-Step groups and work with their sponsor to strengthen their recovery. Additionally, techniques such as mindful meditation or journaling can help people deal with feelings that lead to cravings and they can find healthy ways to cope with those feelings.
If you are in early recovery and are dealing with alcohol cravings with regular frequency, your best option is to seek the professional help of a treatment facility such as Ocean Breeze Recovery Center. We offer a wide range of treatment programming that can help you deal with the issues that are at the root of your cravings and will give you the tools and support to move forward confidently in recovery. Call us today.