Whether you’re looking to quit drinking or you’re just looking to cut back, alcohol cravings are a major inconvenience. Sometimes they’re physical – you can feel them in your body. Other times they’re mental – you can’t seem to think about anything else.
For many who have been drinking for a prolonged period, walking away from alcohol can feel like walking away from something as natural as breathing or sleeping. It can make it seemingly impossible to regain control of your life and make healthier choices. The good news? You can learn to overcome the cravings. It just takes (a lot) of practice.
At Sun Behavioral Health Delaware, we know how intense alcohol cravings can be. If cravings are getting in the way of your recovery, read on for some strategies that can help.
Any time you drink alcohol, a “feel good” neurotransmitter called dopamine is released in your brain. This is the chemical responsible for things like motivation, well-being, sleep, learning, and more. Every time you artificially release dopamine through alcohol, your brain gets used to it. After a while, your brain thinks an overabundance of dopamine is normal. When you stop drinking, your brain feels like it should be getting that extra dopamine. The absence of alcohol leads to dopamine deficiency, which is what we feel during withdrawals.
Alcohol withdrawals can feel like insomnia, body aches, nausea, tremors, and more, but they’re not permanent. It’s just the brain trying to adjust itself to the lack of excess dopamine. After a while, our brain can solidify new pathways to dopamine again (in natural, healthy ways). And yet – the psychological cravings can still remain.
Someone can be alcohol-free for years and become slammed with cravings one day while driving past an old liquor store they used to frequent. Once the body has healed from alcohol use disorder, the physical cravings (or withdrawals) are no longer an issue. But our memories are still there. The mind and body remember alcohol, so the temptation to drink might return.
The strength of your cravings will decrease over time. The more comfortable you become in recovery, the less you’ll think about drinking. It does get better. In the meantime, managing these cravings can make the difference between relapse and recovery.
According to the Department of Health and Human Services, over 400,000 people in Delaware participate in alcohol use. Almost 6% of Delawareans struggled with binge drinking or alcohol use disorder in 2020. This is important because it’s a reminder that you’re not alone. You’re not the first person to experience alcohol cravings, and you won’t be the last.
Everyone handles cravings a little differently, and what works for someone may not work for everyone. Here are some of the most common techniques for reducing or eliminating alcohol cravings.
Hydration is extremely important when you’re trying to stop drinking. For one thing, your body's working overtime during withdrawals. It’s trying to rejuvenate, find energy, and heal. Dehydration is going to slow down that process. Proper hydration also leads to better sleep, elevated mood, and a stronger immune system – all things vital to recovery.
When you start to feel a craving, grab your non-alcoholic drink of choice and take a few swigs. It will lessen the cravings and help you feel a little better. If you drank beer before, try switching to sparkling water. The carbonation resembles what you’re used to. If you were a wine drinker, switch to juice or even Gatorade. Keep a drink within reach at all times.
Your body is used to getting a massive amount of sugar from alcohol. When you stop drinking, the sugar levels in your body are much lower than what they usually are. This can intensify your cravings.
Normally, you might watch how much sugar you’re putting into your body. During this time, allow yourself to indulge. When the cravings and the withdrawals pass, you can go back to watching your sugar intake. In the meantime, some extra candy or fruit might help curb your alcohol cravings.
Exercise is highly recommended for anyone in recovery. Alcohol can affect brain functionality; moving your body can help to heal the mind. Regular movement can circulate higher levels of dopamine – the chemical that your body is missing from regular alcohol consumption. Even at 30 minutes a day, regular exercise can improve sleep, mood, and blood circulation.
Find a way to work exercise into your new, substance-free routine. It will work to decrease your cravings and get your mind off of alcohol.
Living a life free of alcohol is an accomplishment. Tracking your substance-free days can be motivating because it’s a way to check on your progress. Each day that you’re in recovery, you’re healing. You’re becoming more available to your family and friends, you’re present, and you’re slowly getting healthier. Pay attention to this.
We spend so much time thinking about all of the ways we’ve messed up or all of the times we’ve let ourselves down. Recovery is a time to recognize your efforts and praise yourself for all of the hard work you’re doing. Living alcohol-free isn’t easy, especially if you’ve been drinking for a while. You’re doing something praise-worthy.
A popular phrase we use in recovery is “play the tape forward,” which means to imagine your life in the future. You can imagine it one of two ways:
In one future, you’ve gone back to alcohol. What does your life look like? Are you around for your children? Are you surrounded by true friends that care for you? Are you healthy?
In the second future, you’re healthy. You’re substance-free. You don’t rely on alcohol for your stressful moments, your happy moments, or the times when you’re alone. What does that life look like?
Which future makes you happiest? The next time you feel tempted to return to drinking, compare your futures. Play the tape forward.
Your triggers are the things that tempt you to drink. They can be memories, places, or even people. If you’re in a volatile relationship, an argument with your partner might cause you to reach for alcohol. Maybe stress at work makes you want to drink. Maybe you’re used to drinking when you’re alone, at parties, or on Sunday mornings. Those situations are now your triggers, and you need to recognize them. If they go unresolved, they can increase your cravings.
Getting triggered does not make you powerless, but it makes you vulnerable to relapse. Learning how to recognize your triggers is the first step to managing them. Over time, you’ll form healthy coping strategies and you’ll overcome the temptation to drink. If you’re having trouble recognizing your triggers, talk to a therapist or a peer counselor.
Cravings can hit anytime, anywhere. Sometimes they last two minutes. Other times they last hours. When you’re overwhelmed by the temptation to drink, distract yourself. This could simply be getting up and walking to another room. It could mean going for a walk, having a snack, or calling a friend. Distracting yourself can relieve or eliminate cravings.
Alcohol use disorder (AUD) treatment is one of the best choices you can make for yourself. If you have tried multiple times to stop drinking, but you need some additional support, treatment can give you the final push you need.
At Sun Behavioral Health Delaware, our AUD treatment focuses on giving you the tools you need to live a happy, healthy life. In treatment, you’ll receive compassionate care that can provide you with support, motivation, and strength. You’ll learn how to manage your triggers and how to cultivate a life outside of alcohol. We’re here for you, and we can’t wait to help you. For any questions or to learn more about alcohol addiction treatment, call us at 302-207-8762 today!
What causes the brain to crave alcohol?
When you’re drinking regularly, your brain gets used to high levels of dopamine. After a while, your brain thinks an overabundance of dopamine is normal. When you stop drinking, your brain feels like it should be getting more of that “feel good hormone”. The absence of alcohol leads to dopamine deficiency, which we feel during withdrawals. It’s also what is responsible for our cravings.
What are some effective behavioral interventions for craving alcohol?
Getting regular exercise, good sleep, distracting yourself, and talking to peer counselors or friends can all help.
Does eating help to reduce alcohol cravings?
Depending on what you’re eating, yes. Fueling your body with healthy foods can stave off some withdrawal symptoms, which can lessen cravings. Your body is also craving sugar when you quit drinking, so keep lots of fruit on hand.