Managing cravings and urges

It can feel quite overwhelming to go about your day-to-day life as a sober person in a society that rewards alcohol consumption and shames those who don’t drink. We’re surrounded by environmental cues prompting people to buy and consume alcohol.

There are, of course, the overt cues of industry advertising and the nearly ubiquitous presence of alcohol at bars and parties. But alcohol culture sneaks into so many more of our everyday experiences – at restaurants, grocery stores, and all kinds of social events, on movies and TV, in our social media feeds and stories – inundating our consciousness through product placement, internet humor, merchandising, and more.

green neon "drinks" sign
Photo by Stéphan Valentin on Unsplash

On top of universal cues, many have their own personal cues to drink – when this thing happens to me, I drink to deal with it. When I’m in this environment or with this person – or see this thing that was often with me when I drank – I want alcohol. If you have a complex pattern of behavioral rituals surrounding alcohol consumption, that can compound the challenge of quitting.

What’s worse, those suffering from problems with alcohol use have been observed to experience cue reactivity, a learned response that involves heightened physiological and subjective reactions to drug-related stimuli. For those who have engaged in addictive behavior, that can lead to intense cravings and urges upon quitting. Cravings refer to the desire to drink (“I want alcohol”) and urges refer to the compulsion to act on that desire (“I have to drink now”). For the sake of simplicity, I will refer to both as cravings. If it isn’t already hard enough for those who suffer from cravings in their early sobriety, alcohol culture makes it that much harder. You really can’t forget that alcohol exists and that the current norm is to drink. So on top of the cravings, many people feel like outsiders – and then feel driven to drink because it’s a quick escape from a feeling of social awkwardness.

person walking under lamplight at night
Photo by Atharva Tulsi on Unsplash

For many people who give up drinking, at first, cravings can feel overpowering – like you’ll die if you can’t have that one drink. But cravings can’t kill you. The inflated distress they may cause you to experience early on is a cognitive distortion that requires training to overcome. With time, each and every bout of craving will ease up and pass. One minute can feel like twenty, but with patience, it will start to feel like ten, and then five, and then cravings will fade into nothing but passing recollections. Repeated exposure and resistance will increase not only your resilience, but also the intensity of the cravings.

There are several strategies that can help with managing cravings and avoiding situations that trigger them. Early on in sobriety, we are forced to accept uncertainty. We don’t know how long we have to wait for a craving to pass, or when the next one will come. We don’t know what other people will say and do. But we can’t expect the world to become consistent until we’re internally consistent, and that can be a long, hard waiting game. A good start is to practice healthier ways to manage everyday triggers like anxiety, stress, or anger. To resist and reduce the intensity of cravings when they come on, SMART Recovery offers tips to delay, escape, accept, dispute, or substitute cravings (DEADS).

"and breathe" neon sign over plants
Photo by Robin Benzrihem on Unsplash

Early in my sobriety, when my cravings and anxiety in the presence alcohol rose, I found that closing my eyes and taking a few long, deep breaths was a surprisingly effective remedy. If I had more time on my hands or my anxiety got particularly bad, I’d meditate, nap, veg out on some TV, or leave a situation that was making me highly uncomfortable, like a crowded bar. If social awkwardness was the culprit, having a seltzer or a soda in a coozie helped to minimize conversations about why I wasn’t drinking and thus reduced my feeling of being an outsider.

Other coping activities might include journaling, creating music or art, cooking, exercise, volunteering, getting fresh air – anything that eases or channels negative energy, often towards some more positive end. Mindfulness interventions may also help. You can pay close and specific attention to individual aspects of yourself and your environment, ranging from your bodily posture to sensations in different parts of your body, as well as things like colors, sounds, and objects surrounding you. Some methods work better for some people than others. Your particular stressors, triggers, and interests may dictate what will work best for you, but you can certainly try some of these out as a start.

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If your cravings have been particularly strong or you worry about your willpower to resist them, you might choose to avoid certain environments and situations. For many, bars and parties are a concern. It helps to make sure you have an “out” and a way home from these. I sometimes need to remind myself that I know what’s best for me, that I can change my surroundings. I also need an occasional reminder that I can drive my car places now that I’m sober. For those without a car, rideshare or public transportation may provide an exit route.

"Good vibes only" purple neon sign
Photo by Allie Smith on Unsplash

For other people, spending too much time alone at home is associated with their past drinking behavior, so it helps to get outside or make plans with friends. Behavioral triggers differ for everyone, and reflecting on your prior drinking patterns can help you recognize them.

A lot of people find they shouldn’t keep alcohol in their living space. A friend of mine who gave up alcohol was recently on a work trip, staying in a hotel room that provided free bottles of wine. They almost got him – cork, glass, and sinker. He managed to avoid the strong temptation, but it might be wise in situations like this to ask the front desk if they could just remove the wine.

Empty wine glass
Photo by Luke Besley on Unsplash

I’m an odd bird in that I’ve kept the same bottle of wine in my pantry ever since I quit. I have been fortunate not to suffer from strong cravings, and I think part of me wants to feel stronger and better than that bottle of wine. Whatever feels right to you, it’s important to stay vigilant in sobriety. Change takes time. It would be unwise to think we are cured and won’t revert to the same mental justifications for having “just one” drink that we were so ingrained in a short time ago.

There are also the unexpected times when alcohol seems to be thrust upon you – the wedding toasts, the holidays, the celebrations. Drinking alcohol is often seen as a communal activity, bringing people together. By not doing so, you’re intentionally excluding yourself. As these scenarios continue to arise, I’ve personally found the path of least resistance to be telling people I don’t drink – whether I say it’s for personal reasons, for health and mental health, or even “because I’ve already had enough in this lifetime.” I speak up for myself (and am lucky to have wonderful friends who do the same).

Banners and wedding decorations
Photo by Andrew Knechel on Unsplash

Some people will be uncomfortable because they take your decision to avoid drinking as a judgment of their own behavior. But by and large, people don’t care as long as they can have their drink and their fun. We are all at the center of our own universe, and no one else’s. The spotlight effect is very real. People are too wrapped up in their own social presence to notice or remember much about anyone else. People just don’t care that much about your sobriety. I’ve found that comforting.

Cravings can suck and it takes practice to get them to ease up. I see this pattern in so many areas of sobriety. Things that gave me a lot of anxiety early on have become unbelievably less painful and awkward. From filling spare time to attending parties without drinking, sidestepping wedding toasts, and dealing with heartache, frustration and stress without alcohol, so many facets of my own anxious experience have started to feel quite comfortable and natural after repeated sober exposure. Over time, you may find that you’re a much less anxious person overall.

Close-up of tree rings
Photo by Gabriel Jimenez on Unsplash

There are still times when a strong whiff of wine, beer, or liquor at a party throws me off keel, but I no longer crave a sip. The smell makes me feel a bit nauseous, and if anything, makes me want fresh air and space. One of the benefits of cultivating my own hobbies and creative interests is that I’ve come to prefer them over spending hours at a party around alcohol. Especially as an introvert. But I love my friends who drink and am working towards striking a balance. I want to be able to enjoy my time with them, and that comes more easily now – even without alcohol.

It has been important to me to find inner balance and strength, managing my anxiety so that I’m able to be around alcohol without cravings or a sense of social awkwardness getting the better of me. It was hard the first few months, but it has begun to feel more and more natural. And it was certainly worth the early effort to get here.

If you’re struggling with cravings, I hope some of the tools in this post will help you to get to a place of comfort and ease. Please share any other strategies that have worked for you in the comments!

-Dana G

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Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

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