coping with alcohol cravingsCoping with cravings is the key to tackling alcoholism. If you can manage to not give in to your cravings, or you can adapt so that you don’t get so many cravings in the first place, then there is no more addiction is there?

How you view your own cravings will determine how much power they have over you. If you believe that a craving won’t naturally go away once it has started, or if you think that the only way to deal with a craving is to drink, then of course you will be fairly powerless over them. This is the cognitive component of your addiction.

Making yourself aware of what things in your life tend to give you cravings, and therefore how you might avoid those situations, becomes a vital skill. For those ‘triggers’ that you can’t avoid, you can learn how to deal with them differently.

Lets say there are four types of cravings:

  • a reaction to withdrawal symptoms
  • escaping from unpleasant feelings (boredom, depression, anxiety etc.)
  • a response to a learnt association (people, places etc)
  • enhancing a positive mood

Each type requires a different approach to deal with it. And each person’s approach will be unique to them.

There are six recognised methods for dealing with cravings when they occur:

  • distraction
  • imagery
  • rational responses to automatic thoughts
  • activity
  • relaxation
  • coping flashcards

Distraction – the goal of these methods is to move a person’s attention away from negative internal thoughts or uncomfortable feelings, towards a more neutral external focus. They seem simple, but can all be effective –

  • concentrate on your surroundings and describe them to yourself in detail, this can be quite ‘grounding’ when you feel like you’re losing it.
  • talk to someone, anyone. A trusted friend, relative, your counsellor or even a total stranger if need be. It can help you get away from that loop running in your head.
  • change the scenery – go for a walk, a drive, a bike ride, just get away from wherever you are right now.
  • oddly enough, cleaning or other household chores can be perfectly distracting if you’re craving, and you might feel some sense of achievement too.
  • video games (or indeed the old fashioned kind) can require enough concentration and challenge to take your mind off it, and of course, you can play them alone.
  • I’m sure you can think of some other things to do which are distracting and enjoyable.

Imagery – there are a few different types of imagery which can work –

  • command your craving to STOP (see a big stop sign), then refocus on a relaxing location of your choice – a favourite peaceful spot.
  • if you start remembering good times when you were drinking, then replace that image with the bad times, your lowest ebb when you felt ashamed and disgusted, do you want to end up back there?
  • if it’s negative, depressing images that are giving you cravings, then imagine an optimistic view of your near future, with friends or family, having fun without a drink (or any other positive image).
  • if you know you’ve got an event coming up which will give you cravings – try rehearsing the image in your head of you dealing with it appropriately. Run through the feelings you’ll have so you are not caught off-guard by them.

Rational Responses to Automatic Thoughts – whenever you feel a craving, ask yourself “what thoughts are going through my head right now”. Many of the thoughts you are having will themselves be responsible for your craving. It becomes a matter of responding to those thoughts in a more rational way.

  • look for evidence to back up or contradict your thought and ask yourself:
  • can I look at this situation differently?
  • if what I’m thinking is true, what really are the consequences?
  • what is likely to happen if I carry on thinking like this?
  • what positive action can I take to solve this problem?

Try not to make such catastrophic predictions about your cravings, like “there’s no way I can stand this, so I might as well just drink and get it over with”, “I keep having cravings, so I must be an alcoholic, I can’t beat this…” etc. Cravings usually subside fairly quickly anyway, so just ride it out if need be.

Activity – if you’ve had an addiction to drink for a long time, then you’ve probably not got many hobbies left. In fact quite often, drinking is the only activity you actually do for fun. So when you try and stop, boredom is the biggest hurdle. There’s no way around it – you’re going to have to try some new activities.

When you’ve found a few that you like, make sure you schedule them in every week:

“On Tuesday I’m going swimming, on Thursday I’m going to the cinema with Sally, on Saturday I’m getting out to the countryside for a walk with my partner.”

It will feel weird to some to plan your week this way, but in the early stages of recovery from addiction, it’s essential.

RelaxationAnxiety, Anger, Frustration and Stress are amongst the biggest triggers for cravings. So learning some relaxation techniques can be a life-saver. If you’re not so tense, you’re less likely to act impulsively. And if you’ve been using alcohol to relax for years, then you are going to have to learn some other methods. Try these:

Simple Relaxation
More Relaxation Techniques
BBC – Relaxation

It will take a while to learn these new techniques, as with any new skill, but keep at it and you’ll be floating around on a cloud of calm like the best Buddhist masters – well, hopefully…

Coping Flashcards – when you’re in the grip of a strong craving, it’s hard to think rationally and remember all the things you’re supposed to. So writing yourself some instructions on a small index card can be useful. (This helps tremendously for people with anxiety too). The priority is to convince yourself that you can cope with this situation. Here’s a few examples of things you might write –

  • things are going well with my partner right now, I don’t want to mess it up
  • this craving will pass if I just give it time
  • I’m not helpless here, what action can I take?
  • what are the pros and cons right now?

Remember – It’s just a craving, it won’t kill you. But drinking might…