Many of us who are strong in recovery can get pretty comfortable. But, every once in a while we can experience sudden cravings. When a surprising craving comes out of the blue, we may feel strong enough to be able to have “just one” and then withdrawal symptoms kick in.
You may have successfully abstained for a long time, you may have a strong support network in place to handle those challenging moments.
But, the addicted part of the brain can sneak up on us without us realizing. Relapse starts way before a person reaches for a drink or drug. If we haven’t noticed the signs, the addicted part of our brain can make us believe that just one won’t hurt.
All of a sudden, our brain starts suggesting that it is possible to drink safely and in moderation.
When a person has been in recovery for a long time, the cravings they experience become fewer. But, when a craving does strike, it is just as powerful and persuasive as if the person has just stopped. The mind starts to suggest that we don’t have an addiction, or start to remember the enjoyable aspects of their addiction.
Cravings are dangerous. They can lead us to forget about the terrible impact addiction has on our lives and only remind us of what we missed. We forget that the negative consequences of our addiction far outweigh the temporary pleasurable feelings from substance or alcohol use.
As dealing with cravings is vital to maintaining a strong and successful recovery, here we outline the various types of cravings and what to do when they strike.
Being prepared in advance for when a craving strikes will improve your chances of kicking it to the roadside. As a result, you’ll have gone through that difficult craving which will make it easier if and when it returns.
What Are Cravings during Drug Addiction?
Cravings are the result of prolonged drug use over time. Cravings can strike even after months or even years of abstinence.
When a person stops using drugs or alcohol, they start to experience an intense longing for it. This is an overwhelming physical and emotional sensation and motivates people to desire and seek a substance.
When we experience a craving, it distorts our thinking. During a craving, we become solely focused on current thoughts and urges, which trivialize longer-term plans and goals. It affects our priorities in that present moment. The discomfort of withdrawal symptoms can be so intense that it hijacks the brain’s motivation. The body may need food and drink, but an addicted person may only crave opioids.
Cravings are caused by changes in the chemical make-up of the brain. When a person takes an addictive substance such as nicotine, for example, it binds to receptors in the brain which trigger a dopamine response. When dopamine is triggered it floods a part of the brain called the nucleus accumbens.
It is dopamine that creates pleasurable feelings. Dopamine is typically released when we do something pleasurable such as eating an ice-cream. But addictive drugs can make the brain release as much as ten times as much the amount of natural dopamine, and much more rapidly.
“It feels like a big hug from my Mom,” is how one opioid-addicted patient described the experience of taking opioids to his psychiatrist.
It is dopamine that makes a person experience pleasurable sensations. When a person takes an addictive substance over prolonged periods, the number of receptors that bind to the substance increases. When a person withdraws from an addictive substance, their brain has an unusually high number of receptors and not enough of the addictive substance to bind to, so the brain produces less dopamine.
When a person uses an addictive drug for a long time, they produce less and less dopamine. Eventually, the addicted person produces lower levels of dopamine.
A person who is withdrawing from substances produces less dopamine than a person who is not addicted. It takes approximately 12 weeks for dopamine levels to normalize in people who quit smoking. Until then they must endure lower dopamine production levels which are associated with depression, anxiety, and moodiness.
Dopamine is related to mental health disorders as people with lower dopamine production levels tend to have mood disorders such as anxiety, and depression.
Cravings ultimately start in the brain. They are either triggered by an environmental factor that reminds them (a type of Pavlov’s dog response) or they’re emotionally triggered.
Triggers from Cravings
Triggers can come in various forms, such as:
- When a person enters a setting where they would normally drink or use
- When a person meets certain people who they typically use drugs with or drink
- Places the person associates with their addiction
In Alcoholics Anonymous there is a saying that it’s “people, places, and things,” that trigger craving. Some would say “playmates, playgrounds, and playthings.” It is the subconscious anticipation that a person might be about to use or take drugs that stimulates a craving. For example, when a person walks past a bar they used to drink in daily might start to have cravings for alcohol. A person with an opioid addiction may have a craving at the sight of a syringe.
Interestingly, if an addicted person is placed somewhere with no triggers, they are less likely to experience cravings. A smoker who works in a non-smoking office may not think of a cigarette as often as if they are in a bar.
If the brain does not think there is an available reward, the cravings subside and attention goes somewhere else.
Cravings can vary in intensity and can affect behavior to varying degrees. The more energy and attention a person gives to craving thoughts, the more likely they are to cave in. The more he or she keeps thinking about the substance, food, or drink, the strong the cravings become.
When cravings become stronger, the more likely a person will be to start rationalizing taking a drug or drink.
As they say in Alcoholics Anonymous, “one drink is too many and a thousand is never enough.” For people who are ex-addicts, a small dose of a substance or drink they’re addicted to is enough to trigger a relapse.
Stress is an insidious factor in cravings. Continual daily stress can deplete the function of the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for self-control. Stress impairs the brain’s ability to judge, plan, and concentrate. Due to the reduced function of the prefrontal cortex, the brain is less able to regulate impulses, making the likelihood of a relapse more probable.
The Symptoms of Cravings
Cravings can vary from person to person and can also be affected by the type of addiction. Typically craving symptoms include:
- Intrusive thoughts about using a drug or drink
- A strong will to visit using places and see old drinking or using friends
- Wanting to use or drink
Handling Cravings from Drug Addiction
If cravings occur as a result of stopping drinking or taking drugs, the cravings are more likely to be the result of withdrawal symptoms.
But, cravings that occur after a long period of sobriety are more likely to be caused by triggers and cues caused by the environment or stress.
Every person who stops drinking alcohol, taking drugs, or engaging in an addictive behavior needs to devise a relapse prevention plan.
A relapse prevention plan is a set of strategies a person can turn to if they experience triggers. To do this we first need to identify our triggers and cues. We can do this with a pen and a piece of paper by drawing three columns each titled:
- Cues that trigger us
- Activities that trigger us
- Strategies to calm ourselves
Identifying our triggers in advance allows us to prepare ourselves so that we don’t automatically slip back into the addictive behavior. We can also plan and prepare for those unexpected cravings that spring up out of the blue.
Calming strategies. The main strategy to use in those difficult moments of discomfort is to promote feelings of calm. By acknowledging our feelings as they arise, allowing ourselves to experience them, we can gently let them fade instead of giving energy to the addictive thoughts.
Strategies For Calm when the cravings occur
In Alcoholics Anonymous, there is a well-known strategy called HALT which teaches people in recovery to never get too “hungry, angry, lonely, or tired.”
When a person is experiencing negative emotions their prefrontal cortex becomes tired and we are less able to judge a situation, regulate our emotions, and concentrate. We are more vulnerable to our cravings when the homeostasis of our brains and bodies is out of whack.
As a person in recovery, it’s vital to maintain a balance of physical and mental health through a healthy lifestyle. When a person is hungry, cravings are more likely to strike. Eating a little protein in a nutritious meal can help to boost a person’s mood.
Support Networks for Cravings and Drug Addiction
If cravings get a little out of hand, then it’s time to turn to support from others. It’s vital for every person in recovery to develop and nurture a network of like-minded individuals for emotional support. That’s where twelve-step programs come in as they are available regularly.
Sometimes life can get too much, particularly when there is a global pandemic. Even if a person is unable to access a meeting in person, they can access support online or phone a friend.
It’s great to have those people you can call on when you suffer from unbearable cravings.
Cognitive Behavioral Techniques to combat Cravings
By managing our emotions we become able to manage our cravings. The aim is to prevent dopamine production levels to dip too low as that is when our brain is less able to function properly.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a powerful talking therapy that encourages a person to identify their negative core beliefs which underpin negative self-talk. Negative self-talk is largely responsible for relapses. Positive self-talk, on the other hand, can help a person to feel better about themselves and de-escalate cravings and the desire to relapse.
CBT techniques can help manage cravings in a variety of ways such as:
Talking it out
Many people find that cravings dissipate when they share their feelings with others in a supportive environment. Support groups such as twelve-step groups and SMART recovery groups are a valuable resource as you gain support from people who are in the same boat as you. Hearing stories of success from others who have more to contend with than you can provide the inspiration you need to reduce your cravings.
Avoid Triggers for Cravings
In some cases, it is best that you avoid certain places or people if the cravings get too much when you are in their vicinity. You may be able to change this as you become stronger in your recovery.
Relaxation to curb Cravings and Drug Addiction
Relaxation techniques can help you to bring your mind to the present moment. Slow breathing techniques and counting slowly from one to ten can help to distract your mind from a craving.
It can be helpful to have something on hand to distract yourself with when you experience a craving. For example, you could download a game to your phone that you can play when you get a craving.
Remember Cravings Are Short-lived
The problem with cravings is that they feel like they will last forever and that life will never be the same again. That’s what addiction does to the brain, it convinces the person that they will feel unpleasant forever. An important skill in fighting cravings involves taking a step back from one’s thoughts to think about what they are thinking about.
If you can master this skill, you are in a strong position to maintain a successful recovery as the ability to withstand difficult feelings without giving in to the addiction is the key.
Change The Environment
It’s also important to consider your environment. When a person has a comfortable environment free from stress and problems it is much easier to cope with cravings as they arise. But, when a person is surrounded by other addicted people in an uncomfortable and stressful environment it is more difficult to avoid cravings.
Something To Remember about Cravings and Drug Addiction
When you quit a substance or alcohol you know you are going to find it challenging. Cravings are a natural part of giving up.
When you’ve achieved many months or years of sobriety, though, it can be frustrating and confusing to experience cravings. Unfortunately, addiction conditions the brain with certain memories and neurological pathways which can be triggered at any time.
It’s also crucial to remind yourself that whenever you have a craving it is a sign of your body healing from the addiction. When you successfully avoid relapsing you strengthen your sobriety.
The brain has plasticity, even after years of addiction or substance use disorder. This means that although you may experience cravings from time to time, you are still recovering. The longer you abstain, the more your dopamine production levels normalize.
Eventually, the cravings get less and less. It just takes a little patience, planning, and time.
If you need help today, reach out to the friendly team here at District Recovery and we’ll help you get back on track. Call us today at 844.287.8506 and let’s get you back on track the right way.