Dealing with cravings is one of the biggest challenges when recovering from addiction. Considering this, surprisingly little is known about cravings, what causes them, and how long they last. [https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4041083/] We do know they are typically linked to certain cues–people, places, and things we associate with drugs and alcohol. We also know that cravings aren’t constant. They come and go, peaking for a short time, then subsiding for a while. That means even the most intense craving won’t last forever. If you can deal with a craving for 20 minutes or so, you can relax for a bit until the next one comes along. Here are some strategies for dealing with cravings until they pass.
The first thing to remember when a craving hits is that cravings are a normal part of recovery. No one can recover from addiction without having to deal with cravings and even people with 20 years of sobriety still have cravings sometimes. A craving doesn’t mean you’re doing something wrong or that your recovery is doomed. Cravings happen even when you’re doing great. Just acknowledge that you’re experiencing a craving and decide on a strategy to deal with it.
As noted above, a craving only lasts about 20 minutes or so. That can feel like a long time if you’re just sitting there doing nothing and you might even start feeling anxious about it, which only prolongs the craving. Instead, it’s a good idea to find some way to distract yourself until the craving passes. Anything that takes some attention is helpful–watching TV, playing a video game, going for a walk, or working on a project. The more attention you have to devote to your distraction, the less you notice your craving.
Substitute something else.
One strategy for dealing with cravings is to have a regular substitute. When breaking a habit, a substitution is easier than abstinence alone. It resolves the feeling that you should be doing something in response to a specific cue. If you have a substitute behavior, you can automatically do the substitute behavior without having to decide on a distraction. For example, if you’re used to getting home from work, sitting on the couch and having a beer, you can substitute soda or something so that the behavior pattern is less of a change from the one you’re used to. Or you could have a regular plan that when you have a craving, you automatically go for a walk.
Exercise is one of the best distractions or substitutions there is. Several studies have found that exercise can help reduce drug cravings. One study found that regular swimming reduced voluntary morphine consumption in opioid-dependent rats and another study found that running on a wheel reduced self-administered cocaine consumption in cocaine-dependent rats. [https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/can-exercise-help-conquer-addiction-2018122615641] Another small study of 38 people found that five participants of the group that got regular exercise remained abstinent after a year and 10 had reduced their drug use. This is thought to be because exercise changes the way your brain responds to stress so that cravings produce less anxiety and become more tolerable. Exercise also has other cognitive benefits, including better emotional regulation, more willpower, better memory, and better sleep.
When you experience a craving, don’t hesitate to ask for help. Call your sponsor or a supportive friend or family member. If you can, meet with someone in person. Getting together with someone for lunch or coffee or maybe even going to a meeting is a great way to weather a craving. The social contact reduces your stress and the presence of people who can support you and hold you accountable reduces the risk that you will give in to a craving.
Change your context.
While it’s great to practice strategies to deal with cravings without disrupting your life, sometimes the best thing to do is just get away. Some situations are just too much pressure and it’s better to remove yourself than to try to fight a craving and risk losing. This is especially true if you find yourself at a party or a bar where drinking or drug use is expected. Get away if you need to, even if it’s inconvenient.
Examine your thinking.
When under stress, like experiencing a craving, our thoughts can often make things worse. When you’re having a craving, you might be thinking something like, “this is awful; I can’t stand it; I’m going to relapse for sure.” In reality, a craving is unpleasant, but you can stand it and lots of people have cravings without relapsing. Practice telling yourself a more realistic story like, “This is uncomfortable, but I always knew there would be challenges in recovery. This craving will pass soon; I just have to be patient.”
Play the tape.
When a craving gets bad, you can always try playing the tape. This is when you think beyond the initial moment of gratification a relapse would bring and vividly imagine what happens next. Think of the disbelief and remorse you would feel if you relapsed. Imagine how disappointed your family and friends would be. Remember all the bad things addiction brought into your life and why you finally decided to get sober. Vividly imagining the negative consequences of a relapse can boost your willpower when you need it most.
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