Not everyone who moderates or discontinues the use of alcohol will experience cravings during the withdrawal process. That said, they are a commonplace phenomenon and most likely to affect those who meet National Institute on Alcohol and Alcoholism’s heavy drinking criteria.
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is an American Psychiatric Association publication that classifies mental disorders like alcohol use disorder for diagnosis and treatment. In 2013, the fifth edition of this diagnostic tool (DSM-5) included alcohol cravings as a diagnostic criterion for alcoholism.
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If you experience cravings, this does not necessarily mean that you have alcohol use disorder, although you might consider consulting a mental health professional to voice your concerns. This guide outlines how to stop alcohol cravings and also shows you what to do if it’s too late and cravings strike.
Why Do Alcohol Cravings Occur?
Alcohol is a CNS depressant that also has stimulant properties. Consuming alcohol leads the brain to release dopamine, a neurotransmitter or chemical messenger associated with reward-seeking behaviors and pleasure. Alcohol also affects the glutamate system. This system governs learning and memory, and also influences the brain’s ability to change – plasticity. By disrupting the glutamate system and dopamine levels, then, alcohol serves to alter brain function.
In addition to signaling pleasure and reward, dopamine may also help to motivate actions. The more alcohol you consume, the more the glutamate system in your body associates drinking alcohol with pleasure, often triggering increased alcohol consumption.
The chronic abuse of alcohol interferes with the brain’s reward system, triggering the compulsive urge to consume alcohol classified as cravings.
Cravings manifest in response to triggers, either internal or external. Most people who encounter cravings for alcohol experience both types of triggers.
Internal triggers typically involve thoughts, memories, emotions, or physical sensations that promote a compelling urge to drink alcohol. Some common examples include:
- Physical pain
Any environmental cues that you associate with alcohol consumption are considered external triggers. External triggers are normally people, places, things, and situations that you associate with drinking alcohol. Some common examples of external triggers include:
- Going to a party or wedding
- Finishing the working day
- Visiting a restaurant or bar where you would typically drink alcohol
- Having an argument with a loved one
The more thoroughly you understand your personal triggers, the more effectively you can avoid or reduce your exposure to those triggers. Even if it is not possible to stop cravings for alcohol completely, you will be better places to anticipate cravings instead of being caught unawares by a powerful urge to drink alcohol.
Identifying Alcohol Cravings
When you change your patterns of alcohol consumption or stop drinking completely, it is normal to experience cravings. Luckily, alcohol cravings are predictable, fleeting, and controllable.
If you want to know how to curb alcohol cravings, consider an approach used in CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy). CBT is proven effective for treating alcohol use disorder. The approach is known as recognize-avoid-cope approach.
First, consider the external or internal triggers that prompt you to crave alcohol.
Tempting external triggers like people, places, objects, or times of day are typically easy to identify and avoid. List all of your personal external triggers.
To help you clarify your personal internal triggers, track and analyze your urges to consume alcohol for several weeks. This will heighten your awareness of your personal triggers and give you some insight on avoiding or controlling those urges.
Oftentimes, the smartest strategy is to avoid situations like social activities that involve alcohol until you are more confident in your recovery. Do not feel guilty for turning down invitations if you feel that the situation would make you feel uncomfortable or tempt you into relapse.
It is not practical to block every potential internal trigger or to avoid all tempting situations. This means that you should develop various strategies to help you deal with urges to drink. Consider the following examples:
- Remind yourself why you are making lifestyle changes.
- Talk things through with a trusted sober friend.
- Distract yourself with a healthy activity like messaging a friend, playing some music, lifting weights, watching a short video online, taking a walk, meditating, or showering.
- Challenge thoughts that prompt alcohol cravings and replace them with healthier and more positive thoughts.
- Ride it the cravings without succumbing to the urge. Cravings will pass in a matter of minutes.
- Leave all tempting situations as quickly as possible and without feeling guilty.
How to Reduce Alcohol Cravings
What can you do if cravings present despite your preparation, then?
Firstly, acknowledge the cravings, understanding that while the urge may be intense, it will pass within a few minutes. Most alcohol cravings last no more than five minutes.
Consider the following supplementary strategies to reduce the intensity of alcohol cravings:
- Distract yourself: Create a list of healthy distractions you can use when cravings for alcohol strike. Positive distractions can occupy your thoughts and your energy until the urge to drink subsides. Examples include listening to music, dancing, reading, walking, playing with your pet, watching a comedy clip, making coffee or a snack, cleaning, meditating, or engaging with a hobby.
- Remain present and mindful: Mindfulness can help you remain anchored to the present moment while a craving for alcohol passes. Practices that may help with this include grounding techniques, deep breathing exercises, relaxation exercises, stretching, yoga, and mindfulness.
- Reach out to a sober friend: Check in with a sober buddy, a sponsor, or a loved one in your sober support system if a cravings feels unmanageable. Ride out the craving with someone who understands what you are going through.
Are There Any Medications that Can Help with Alcohol Cravings?
Three medications have FDA-approval for treating alcohol use disorder. Two of these medications – naltrexone and acamprosate
All forms of naltrexone are opioid agonists that bind to opioid receptors in the brain. If you consume alcohol while taking naltrexone, you will not experience the rewarding high. By countering the pleasurable feelings triggered by alcohol and disrupting the brain’s reward feedback loop, naltrexone may reduce cravings for alcohol over time.
Acamprosate was marketed and sold as Campral in the United States and is now available in generic form. Acamprosate serves to reduce the emotional distress and physical discomfort experienced by many people who quit drinking. The medication can be prescribed for up to one year following alcohol detox.
Disulfiram is also approved by the FDA for the treatment of alcohol use disorder, but the medication does not target alcohol cravings. Instead, disulfiram triggers an adverse reaction if you consume alcohol while taking the medication.
Alcohol Rehab at California Detox
While alcoholism is a progressive condition that typically worsens if untreated, most cases of alcohol use disorder respond favorably to science-backed treatment. We can help you initiate your recovery at our affordable luxury rehab center in Laguna Beach.
Take advantage of our supervised medical detox program for the smoothest pathway to ongoing treatment. FDA-approved medications can streamline alcohol withdrawal. Continuous clinical and emotional care minimizes the likelihood of complications or relapse derailing your early recovery from alcoholism.
After detoxing from alcohol, choose from the following California Detox treatment programs:
- Residential rehab (inpatient programs)
- Intensive outpatient treatment
- Virtual rehab programs
- Dual diagnosis treatment programs (for alcoholism with co-occurring mental health disorders)
All treatment programs at our Orange County facility offer individualized treatment that utilizes a combination of evidence-based interventions and holistic treatments that may include:
- Medication-assisted treatment
- Group therapy
- Individual counseling
- Talk therapies (CBT and DBT)
- Family therapy
- Holistic therapies
When you are ready to move from active alcohol addiction into ongoing recovery, we can help you from detox to discharge and beyond. Call 949.694.8305 today for immediate assistance.