Cravings: we all have them from time to time. Cravings may be relatively innocent, such as when our mouths water for a pastry or a salty cracker, or when we feel a powerful urge to lose ourselves browsing the Internet or we hurry out to purchase the latest technological gadget. More severe cravings are often associated with addictive substances or behaviors such as nicotine, drugs, alcohol, compulsive overeating or gambling.
What are Cravings?
To the brain, pleasure is pleasure. It can’t tell the difference between necessary drives like eating or sex that are required for survival of the human race, or the pleasurable feelings brought about by drugs or alcohol. The substance or activity triggers release of dopamine in the brain’s nucleus accumbens, a compact cluster of nerve cells often referred to as “the pleasure center.” The process is complicated, as dopamine, a powerful brain chemical, is also involved in memory and learning, which contributes to the addiction process – and to the powerful urges, or cravings.
Cravings are Different for Everybody
Some people might experience cravings physically, deep in the stomach, or they may feel like the heart is racing. Sometimes cravings involve smelling the addictive substance, even when it isn’t there. Anxiety, either mild or severe, often accompanies cravings.
Cravings are normal and can occur even after drug or alcohol treatment or rehab, as the brain continues to associate the addictive substance with pleasurable feelings. The urges can be intense in the early days of recovery and they can take a long time to fade, but they eventually diminish in both strength and frequency.
The important thing is that cravings should be acknowledged, not ignored. If you can identify how cravings affect you, it’s possible to identify them as soon as they begin, which makes them easier to manage.
Coping with Cravings
Learning how to deal with cravings is a critical part of the recovery process. If you’re experiencing cravings, it doesn’t mean that you’re failing at recovery or that relapse is inevitable. However, it’s important that the urges don’t overwhelm you. Here are some suggestions for coping with cravings:
- Although the feelings are difficult, cravings usually peak and abate relatively quickly. Often, if you can wait them out for 15 minutes, the urges will pass. If 15 minutes feels impossible, start by resisting the urges for five minutes at a time. Promise yourself you won’t use within that time period.
- Watch out for triggers. For example, if rows of candy bars or bottles of wine in the supermarket trigger cravings, leave and get yourself to a “safe” place. If a TV program or commercial sets off cravings, change the channel. If you walk past a familiar neighborhood bar on your way to work, change your route. Triggers can be sounds, images, thoughts or smells, and all can set off the brain’s desire for those feelings of pleasure.
- Be aware of how you feel mentally and physically because cravings are often triggered by hunger, frustration, stress, boredom or tiredness. Sometimes a snack or a good night’s sleep is enough to quell the urges.
- If you feel like cravings are getting the best of you, talk to a friend or speak to a counselor as soon as possible. Often, talking about cravings can relieve the anxiety. However, be careful about talking to loved ones who may be fearful that you are relapsing. They may not realize that cravings don’t necessarily lead to taking action on the urges.
- Don’t feel guilty about cravings. Guilt can actually trigger anxiety that make cravings worse.
- Shift your mindset. Listen to music to distract yourself from the urges, or go for a walk. Physical activity can be very helpful.
- Consider learning mindfulness meditation and to practice mindfulness in daily life, both can help you learn to observe the cravings objectively and watch them ebb and flow.