The Next Round: What happens after you change your drinking?

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How to stop alcohol cravings - image of a man reaching for an alcoholic drink

How to stop alcohol cravings

If you are cutting down or quitting alcohol, there will be moments when you experience a seemingly overwhelming urge to drink. If you’ve experienced these kinds of feelings, your first thought will be how to stop alcohol cravings completely. However, understanding and learning to cope with cravings for alcohol can give your more tools to help you sustain change for the longer term.

This article explores what is known about cravings, shares some simple techniques for dealing with cravings in the short term, and suggests steps you can take to minimise the impact of cravings for alcohol.

What is a craving?

At its simplest, a craving is “inherently a subjective experience, best described as a state of desire or wanting” (Monti et al., 2004). But does that mean that every desire for a drink is a craving? Almost certainly not. The one thing that researchers agree on is that cravings feel intense. So a passing thought about having a drink is just that – a passing thought – and not a craving that should concern you.

Cravings have been the subject of scientific research for the last 60 years, but they remain a surprisingly elusive phenomenon. The internet is full of amateur neuroscientists who promise to explain and fix your cravings, but the reality is much more complex. As one researcher puts it, “no one specific theory provides a complete explanation of the phenomenon of craving” (Drummond, 2001).

A passing thought about having a drink is just that – a passing thought – and not a craving that should concern you.

What do cravings feel like?

Although it’s hard to pin down precisely what causes cravings, there has been lots of research about what cravings feel like on the inside. As well as being intense, cravings are also unpleasant and are often accompanied by a change in mood. Cravings make it harder to think clearly, absorbing all your attention. When you experience a craving, it’s hard to make good decisions, and it can feel like your positive intentions to not drink are under active threat. And cravings change your experience of time. Although you know that the desire to drink will pass, it can feel like the craving will never end (Ray and Roche, 2018).

Worst of all, it can feel like cravings come out of nowhere. Have you ever had the overwhelming feeling of needing a drink right now? It can be surprising and confusing, especially if you haven’t been thinking about drinking. But researchers generally agree that cravings are prompted by external triggers.

It might not be immediately apparent what has triggered the craving. Maybe something happens earlier in the day, and you carry it around until the moment alcohol is in sight, making drinking feel inevitable. But if you want to stop cravings for alcohol, it can be helpful to begin to pay attention to what’s going on around you. If you experience a craving, ask yourself, “where did this come from?”

How long since your last drink?

When you’re considering how to stop craving alcohol, it’s vital to ask when you had your last drink.

If your cravings come in the first couple of weeks after quitting drinking, you may be experiencing some degree of alcohol withdrawal symptoms. Cravings for alcohol can peak in intensity around day four of not drinking. For many people, these feelings will resolve themselves within the first seven days alcohol-free. But it’s essential to be on the lookout for warning signs of withdrawal and reach out for support if you are feeling unwell.

If your cravings for alcohol are accompanied by shakes, sweats, nausea or even vomiting, these symptoms will tend to relieve themselves with self-care. If you find yourself anxious, irritable or panicky, these feelings may be heightened as your body adjusts to alcohol’s absence. More severe symptoms, such as seizures, fits, hallucinations, confusion, poor coordination or being unsteady on your feet, require urgent medical attention.

Cravings beyond the first two weeks

The cravings your experience beyond the first couple of weeks are a learned response to triggers for drinking.

In the first couple of weeks, the early-stage cravings can be caused directly by your body adjusting to life without alcohol. But beyond the first two weeks of not drinking, the cravings you experience are primarily psychological and social, not biological.

Of course, that’s not to say you imagine those later stage cravings. You can feel them just as intensely as the cravings in the early days. But because there’s no physiological component, you can be confident that drinking will not stop your alcohol craving. Drinking is only going to set you back. Your best approach is to ride out the craving and keep going.

The cravings you experience beyond the first couple of weeks are your body’s learned response to triggers for drinking. Over the years, you’ve taught yourself that you can expect alcohol in different situations: in particular places, at certain times of day, and with people. But you can change the patterns of your life and take more control. Effectively identifying and tackling your triggers for drinking can go a long way to helping stop alcohol cravings from occurring in the first place.

Short-term distractions to stop alcohol cravings

You may not be able to stop alcohol cravings completely, but there are two practical approaches to dealing with them.

The first approach is distraction. Although your craving feels like it will last forever, nobody is in a state of constant craving (apart perhaps from k.d. lang). The intensity of a craving will typically pass within 20-30 minutes. So if you can keep yourself busy and engaged for that time, you are likely to find your desire to drink has passed.

There are certain things to look for in a distraction activity. It should require just enough concentration to give your brain something to do, but it shouldn’t be hard work. Keep it simple and make sure it’s not emotionally demanding. Maybe a game on your phone, a knitting pattern, a crossword puzzle or a comedy boxset? And it’s good to have a repertoire of distractions you can call on, so don’t limit your options to just one thing. Whatever your distractions are, try them out when you don’t need them.

Although your craving feels like it will last forever, the intensity of your desire will generally pass within 20-30 minutes.

Distractions are undoubtedly a practical short-term fix to stop alcohol cravings. But notice what distractions do: they numb your experience in the present moment in just the same way that alcohol might have. Building your tolerance for discomfort is a vital skill to develop, and leaning in to the experience of cravings can help you do that.

Leaning into the experience of cravings

The other approach to dealing with cravings is to let yourself experience them. Note that this doesn’t mean giving in to your urge to drink. But allowing your desire to come and go helps you understand that cravings cannot hurt you.

This approach isn’t about stopping alcohol cravings but letting them happen. It can be tempting to struggle against your cravings. But tackling them head-on and trying to make them go away can worsen the situation. There is a specific mindfulness technique for dealing with cravings known as urge surfing. The name is evocative. Imagine the craving as a wave that bobs you up and down as it heads to shore. It will pass, and the sea will be calm again. However big the wave, you have to wait it out.

Try this:

  • When you feel a craving, close your eyes and focus on breathing slowly and steadily, in and out.
  • Remind yourself that even as the craving increases, it will decrease again.
  • See if you can just be with the craving as it rises.
  • Now, notice that the craving subsides too.
  • Continue concentrating on your breathing until your sense of calm returns.

Urge surfing can take some practice. You may only be able to manage a few breaths the first time you experience a craving. But keep at it. It is a skill you can develop with practice.

Minimising the impact of alcohol cravings long-term

It might not be possible to stop alcohol cravings for good. But many people find that their desire to drink naturally diminishes over time. The longer you spend practising the skills of drinking less or not at all, the easier you will find it to moderate your alcohol consumption or stop drinking entirely.

Research into cravings (Shorey et al., 2017) has shown that two interlinked factors are associated with reduced cravings for substances. If you want to make alcohol cravings less likely, you’ll want to build up your distress tolerance and diminish your experiential avoidance.

In plainer English? Cravings are easier to handle if you can learn to be OK with not being OK.

A strong desire to drink is an unpleasant experience, and the desire to stop alcohol cravings entirely is understandable. But many times, what drives you to drink in the first place is your discomfort with some part of life. Drinking to cope with stress, anxiety or painful emotions is a common reason for alcohol consumption to get out of hand. The more you can learn to be OK with your complicated feelings, the less likely you’ll find yourself drinking.

Cravings are easier to handle if you can learn to be OK with not being OK.

Getting comfortable with discomfort isn’t something that happens overnight. Practising self-care along the way is vital too. Meeting your physical needs for food, hydration, and rest will also reduce the impact of cravings. You stop alcohol cravings by learning to look after yourself in less damaging ways. Practise those self-care skills consistently and develop happier ways to connect with yourself and others.

Getting support to stop craving alcohol

If you struggle with cravings for alcohol, it’s essential to reach out for support. Often, telling someone what’s going on can help you avoid unwanted drinking, especially if you usually drink alone. Online communities like Club Soda can be a great source of advice. Hearing other people’s experiences of cravings can help you feel less isolated. And chatting can be a brilliant distraction technique during the torturous 20 minutes of really wanting a drink.

Club Soda’s courses offer a structured approach to change, with step-by-step online lessons, a supportive community, and practical exercises to help you put your learning into practice. How to Stop Drinking is perfect if you are cutting out alcohol altogether. How to Drink Mindfully supports you to cut down. Either way, the courses are designed to help you pay attention to your triggers for drinking and make practical plans that will limit the impact and severity of cravings.

Cravings are nothing to be ashamed of, and you can learn to cope and minimise their impact.

And do talk to your doctor about help with cravings. Medication or supplements are not a magic bullet to stop alcohol cravings completely. But your doctor can speak with you about your options. Any pharmaceutical approaches to managing cravings will work best with other methods. Especially take active steps to get support and change your lifestyle.

Most of all, realise that you are not alone. Cravings are nothing to be ashamed of, and you can learn to cope and minimise their impact on you.

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