One of the major obstacles to recovery from alcohol use disorder is having to deal with cravings for alcohol. Cravings are response patterns that are programmed in people and appear as a result of environmental conditions, changes in mood, stress, or other types of triggers that prime these response patterns. Although sometimes cravings may appear to simply come out of nowhere, they are most often triggered by some environmental situation, feeling, or memory that one has about former alcohol abuse.

Numerous environmental conditions can act as triggers for cravings. Many of the policies of well-known recovery groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), advise members to avoid people, places, and things that are associated with one’s prior use of alcohol. In addition, the acronym HALT (for Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired) is often used to remind individuals in AA of the types of conditions that are very likely to foster cravings and spur a relapse to alcohol.

However, it’s not just a negative emotional state that can act as a trigger for cravings. Positive emotional states, such as feeling happy and being successful, can also induce cravings.

Cravings are vivid recollections that are emotionally driven by the pleasant reinforcing effects that continued to drive use of alcohol. They represent powerful reinforcements to engage in the use of alcohol for many individuals who are in recovery. Cravings are often very visceral in nature, such that one can actually experience the reinforcing effects that one used to get from drinking alcohol and forget all of the negative issues that resulted from such use. In some cases, cravings may become so powerful that people feel like they are unable to resist them, although this is certainly not the case. Cravings often spur an internal debate with oneself over whether one should just give in to them this one time or continue to remain abstinent.

Some Tips for Dealing with Cravings.....

  • Recognize that cravings are time-limited; they do not last forever. Cravings will typically go away within 15-20 minutes after they appear if a person can resist them.

  • Distraction is one of the most successful approaches to dealing with cravings. Exercise, meditation, and socializing with friends are excellent ways to deal with cravings.

  • Become involved in activities that have a higher purpose, such as going back to school, mentoring someone, training for a new job, etc., to reduce cravings.

  • Learn stress management techniques (e.g., relaxation and diaphragmatic breathing) to address your reaction to perceived stress, which is one of the most common generalized triggers that produce cravings to drugs and alcohol.

  • Engage in a healthy lifestyle, such as paying attention to one’s diet, remaining hydrated, getting plenty of exercise, socializing, etc., to reduce the effects of triggers and environmental cues.