Cravings are a natural by-product of drug/alcohol use or whatever your drug of choice may be. They can be experienced by anyone, at anytime, anywhere and frequently years after using stops. Remember the smell of a freshly lit cigarette? A joint being smoked on the beach, A whisky. Cravings can be felt easily and can effect us immediately, it does this by connecting to a history of memories and experiences that are stored in our brain. This conditioned and learnt response helps to explain why people who develop an addiction, risk relapse even after years of abstinence.
As drug use escalates, so does the involvement of various brain regions associated with emotions. The brain region most often associated with our emotional state is the amygdala. Scientists, believe that this part of the brain plays an important role in addiction because of its association with emotions and stress. We store both ‘positive’ memories and ‘negative’ memories about various events in our lives. What makes a memory “good” as opposed to “bad” are the emotional states that occurred during those events. When the brain forms these memories, it stores the memory of the event along with the emotions that accompanied it. It is easy to understand how cravings can be felt so strongly.
Enjoyable and simple memories, such as the smell of coffee or the sound of waves lapping on the shore, are stored in our brain as a pleasant emotional state. So just by thinking about it, and not even being there, a pleasant emotional state will be felt. Similarly, if you are addicted, you may only need to think about engaging in your drug of choice and you will experience pleasure. The memory of engaging in the rituals of using and the pleasurable feelings, associated with your addiction, are also stored. It is easy to understand how repeating these pleasurable behaviours can lead to habitual use.
Emotional memory has another role to play in the development of addiction, sometimes known as ‘cue anticipation’. Cue anticipation refers to the environmental cues that can initiate or increase cravings. Cravings, can often, yet not always advance towards relapse. For this reason, these cues can be understood as relapse triggers. These environmental cues (relapse triggers) can be anything that is associated with the addiction. Triggers can be people, places things and/or situations that are associated with using. Internal moods for example anxiety, depression or boredom can be driving factors. So what particular feelings trigger cravings? Here’s the thing, many addictions start as a way of avoiding, suppressing or coping with feelings. So learning to identify and feel the feelings that have taken so long to deny takes hard work, self reflection and commitment. Therefore, its important to work out what your relapse triggers are and how they can be managed more effectively.
Ways of managing cravings can include but are not limited to
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)
This offers a variety of techniques which can help you to spot cognitive distortions in your thinking. A common cognitive distortion that occurs during a drug craving is called catastrophizing. When you have a strong craving, you may catastrophize the situation by thinking things like “I’m never going to be able to make it through this” or “This feeling will never go away if I don’t give in and take this drug.” CBT techniques can help you to decatastrophize the situation and see it more objectively.
Know Your Triggers
During recovery, certain people, places, and things will inevitably make you want to use again. Knowing what your triggers are can help prepare you for the possibility of a craving and allow you to avoid it when possible. Try making a list of your triggers and consider which ones you can honestly avoid. Recognise that there will be some triggers that are unavoidable, aim to come up with strategies for dealing with the cravings that may arise when you are triggered.
Riding them out
Rather than trying to stop the urge all together, sit with the urge instead. Doing this, you can harness a mindfulness technique that believes in the importance of accepting a craving for what it is, rather than resisting it and wanting it to go away. In short, when you start craving, accept it and try not to push it away. Pay attention to whats happening in your body and the thoughts that are running through your mind. In essence, rather than trying to push them away, accept that they are there and ride them out.
Learn the art of healthy distraction.
Distraction is a double-edged sword, it may serve as a form of avoidance or it can be used to redirect your attention. Healthy distraction works when you are able to redirect your attention from negative thoughts/cravings or a potentially vulnerable situation to one that’s more neutral or has clear benefits.
Types of healthy distraction can include:
Attend a meeting within a 12 step program, these are nationwide and offer a non judgemental supportive environment, having a network of recovering alcoholics and addicts is crucial to supporting cravings and maintaining sobriety.
Remove yourself from whatever is triggering you by getting outside to an environment that connects with your newer healthier behaviours.
Practicing good self-care such as eating healthy and exercising regularly, this promotes physical health and emotional well-being, which will not only make you less likely to want to use drugs but will make you more resilient and better able to deny a craving when it does arise.