Coping With Cravings
Addiction and cravings go hand in hand.
What is usually most difficult for people when changing an addiction is coping with the sometimes relentless cravings. The initial days of counselling can be exhausting as cravings dominate thinking and interfere with daily routine. Many people give up change efforts because they feel that there is no way they can function without their habit as the cravings interfere too much with quality of life.
It is important to remember that cravings are normal.
We experience craving in varying degrees every day. And because your habit has been important to you for a long time, it may be unreasonable to expect cravings to vanish completely. What is hoped is that you will come to experience cravings with less frequency and that when they are experienced you will be able to react in a way that avoids relapse.
The "three Ds" can be helpful in coping with urges and cravings. The Ds stand for Decatastrophizing, Disputing expectations and Distracting.
Especially early on in your change efforts, craving can seem excruciating. Your daily routine has been altered by the elimination of an important part of life and now you can't get your mind off it. Everything you see reminds you of your habit. If you drink, every room you enter may bring to mind the image of a bottle and the associated pleasure. The inability to satisfy the craving can lead to frustration and inner statements like, "I can't stand this!" or "There is no way I will be able to live without giving in. I'll just go crazy!" Statements like this can be overwhelming. So much so that people often give up.
Catastrophic thoughts like these can lead to a great deal of arousal which can, in turn, make things seem worse than they are. If you believe that you are completely out of control, your emotions will follow. What is important to remember is that cravings are normal and typically decline in intensity as you continue implementing change. To combat catastrophic reactions to cravings it is important to remind yourself of times in the past when you have successfully changed something about yourself (think now, we have all done so at least once or twice!). Furthermore, think about other people you have known who have undergone significant change. Do they seem so haunted by cravings that they cannot function? If not, who is to say that you cannot accomplish that also?
Try to take some of the power away from a black and white adjective like "horrible" or "unbearable." Belief in horrible extremes only makes you feel worse. Just how unbearable is your craving right now? To accurately answer this you may need to conjure images of what other types of suffering reported as unbearable are like. Is this as unbearable as getting stabbed in the stomach? Probably not! Or better still, what have you endured which was worse than your current craving? Was that unbearable? If so, does it follow that your craving is less than unbearable and perhaps only "very uncomfortable."
Craving is, basically, the act of expecting something. There are three beliefs associated with the urgent decision to take a substance. They are Anticipatory, such as "I'm gonna be Mr. Wonderful after one line", Relief Oriented, such as "I won't have to think about work if I drink this bottle of wine" and Facilitative or Permissive, such as, "I've been good all week, I'm entitled to an evening high."
Since we rarely think about distant consequences when craving, bring them to mind deliberately. Bring to mind the negative emotions which may be experienced at a later time due to engaging in your habit. Cravings are blind, in that they can only see advantages. You must shed some light on your craving in order to effectively control it. Ask yourself questions like:
* How will I feel later if I give in to my cravings?
* What consequences might I suffer if I give in?
* Will the negatives outweigh the positives in the long run if I give in?
Another way to cope with cravings is to imagine that someone very close to you is voicing the very urge you are experiencing. How would you go about convincing them not go give in. Sometimes distancing yourself from your cravings is imperative before you can subject them to any scrutiny.
Your ability to conjure vivid images can be used in your favour when you experience craving. In the presence of a strong urge, try to imagine a very negative outcome. The more negatively graphic the better. The more true to your life the better. For example, if you have a problem with alcohol and experience a strong urge to buy a bottle of something, imagine yourself with the worst hangover possible. Imagine vomiting all morning. Better still - imagine someone very important dropping by, someone you really want to impress, and them seeing you in that condition. It is amazing how powerful your own imagination can be in fueling or stopping behaviour.
Some urges are so relentless that talking back to them is insufficient. You still can't get your mind off your habit. Good old fashioned distraction is sometimes the only thing that can pull your thoughts away. Distraction can be cognitive, in the form of some mental exercises, or behavioral, in the form of activity. Cravings tend to occur in environments which are the same or similar to those in which the habit occurred in the past. If you are trying to quit using cocaine, and you have previously used it every time you go to a certain club, then being in that club is going to elicit a strong craving. If possible, don't go to that club. Or, if your using was at home, plan to do things as often as you can which take you out of the house, alternatively taking a break and walking outside will often be enough to decrease the craving to a manageable level. You must evaluate your schedule and determine which situations evoke the most intense craving and create as much flexibility as possible so that you can "escape" if necessary - especially in the initial days of your change efforts.
Cognitive distraction can be very powerful. Imagery has been used as a means of helping stressed people learn to relax. You too can use imagery to take your mind off a craving which is dominating your consciousness. Conjuring a pleasant place like a beach or on a raft in a lake can help you not only take your mind off the cravings but relax as well.
However, "relaxing" images are not helpful for everyone. Some find that if they relax when craving they will only want it more. This makes sense, as many habits are associated with relaxation and pleasure, and evoking these feelings in places previously associated with your habit can strengthen cravings tremendously. I recommend that you find some mental task that will be very difficult to finish but which is interesting and consuming and that you can activate in response to a craving.
Certainly what you choose will depend on your interests, but the key is to make it something that will be easy and perhaps interesting and fun to do. Choosing to think about all the mistakes you've made this year and how you could have done things differently is not going to prove a good distraction as it won't be enjoyable. In fact it may increase the power of your craving, especially if stress has precipitated your habit in the past.
It is sometimes best to try one craving control technique at a time so that you don't get overwhelmed. These techniques work, but they also require a great deal of mental energy and conscious effort. The aim here is not to make change excruciating or overly taxing, but to provide you with some tools which you can add to your tool-box at your own pace.
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