How to Deal with Cravings

Cravings are convincing. Be it for chocolate, a drink, a vape or something else, cravings can change the way our brain functions. They can be triggered by positive or negative emotions, often signaling a deep-seated desire to consume substances.  

In this article, we will explore the causes of cravings and unveil practical strategies to navigate cravings with resilience and determination.  

Understanding Cravings 

Cravings, simply put, are the desires to use substances. From fleeting thoughts like “a beer would be nice” to intense urges such as “if I don’t use, I am not going to be able to handle it ,” they are often accompanied by physical sensations like anxiety or unease.  

It’s important that we understand cravings are a normal, natural, expected part of the change process when someone tries to shift their relationship with substances. But what exactly are cravings, and more importantly, how do we manage them effectively? 

Causes of Cravings 

Cravings stem from two primary factors. First, they arise as your body and brain strive to return to balance after prolonged substance use. Your body adapts to the presence of drugs or alcohol, making it the norm. Withdrawal disrupts this equilibrium, triggering a process where your cells clamor for something familiar. This is your body’s way of readjusting to having lower amounts of substances in its system, a journey known as “the return to homeostasis.” 

The second is exposure to triggers. Have you ever heard of Pavlov’s dogs’ experiment?  Pavlov was a Russian physiologist who conducted a novel experiment. He served dogs a plate of food, which caused the dogs to salivate.  At the same time, Pavlov rang a bell. He did that repeatedly. After many times, Pavlov rang a bell without serving any food, but the dogs still salivated. The bell had become so associated with the act of eating that it triggered a physiological craving.  

Just as in the example of Pavlov’s dogs, when we encounter something that is associated in our minds with drinking or using, that can trigger a craving. Whether it’s a place, a person, or a situation, these triggers can make us feel like we want to drink or use. 

Triggers and How they Affect us 

To understand challenges with substance use, it’s crucial to grasp the concept of triggers, both external and internal.  

External triggers: These encompass people, places, and situations that have become linked in our minds with drinking or drug use. For example, if we’ve used substances with specific individuals, in particular locations, or during certain times or occasions, encountering these elements again can reignite cravings. 

Internal triggers: These include our thoughts, emotions, and memories. Negative thoughts such as believing that one is inadequate, emotions such as anxiety or loneliness, or recollections of past hardships can all trigger cravings if they’ve been linked to substance use in the past. 

It is important to note that every external trigger is really an internal trigger. The reason any of these external triggers cause us to use substances is because they either generate or surface certain feelings. Substances can be a way to change, amplify or alleviate these feelings. 

Understanding why cravings appear is key to changing our relationship with substances effectively. By recognizing both external and internal triggers, we gain insight into the complex interaction between our environment and our internal state. 

How to Effectively Deal with Cravings 

Ironically, our instinctive response to cravings – trying not to think about them – often backfires. Let’s give an example. Sit quietly for a few moments and take some deep breaths. Allow your mind to go wherever it wants to but try as hard as you can not to think of a white bear. Got it? What did you find? If you’re like most people, even though you may have tried not to think about it, the white bear was never very far from your mind. The white bear may have been present constantly, it may have reappeared recurrently, but either way, it is almost impossible for most people not to think about something they are trying not to think about. 

This psychological concept of “ironic rebound“ states that the more we try not to think about a craving, the more we are likely to think about it.   And the more we try not to think about it, the more likely we are to act on it as well.        

Effective Strategies for Managing Cravings 

Let’s explore practical approaches for managing cravings. Adopting proactive coping mechanisms can be empowering to navigate cravings successfully. Here are three strategies that can be used: 

  1. Cognitive Strategies: Combatting Euphoric Recall
    Euphoric recall – our tendency to remember past substance use in an overly glorified light – can intensify cravings. By acknowledging this cognitive distortion and playing out the negative consequences of substance use, we can combat euphoric recall effectively. Creating vivid reminders of the damaging effects of substance use empowers us to resist cravings with clarity and resolve.
  2. Affective: The Power of Connection
    Engaging in open communication with a non-judgmental friend or loved one that is supportive can be a powerful strategy for managing cravings. Verbalizing emotions associated with cravings not only helps to lessen their intensity but also fosters a sense of understanding. Attending substance use support groups can also be helpful in combatting cravings.  These groups can provide a nurturing environment where individuals share common struggles, fostering a sense of belonging and solidarity, and helping people feel less alone.
  3. Behavioral Strategies: Riding the Wave
    Cravings, similar to waves on an ocean, crest and fall in intensity. Instead of resisting or surrendering to cravings, we can “surf the urge,” allowing cravings to run their course naturally. By acknowledging cravings without acting on them, it’s possible to gradually decrease their frequency and intensity. This technique empowers us to handle cravings in a more realistic way. 

The Path Forward: Embracing Progress 

It’s essential to understand that managing cravings is an ongoing process, and what works for one person may not work for another. Experimenting with various strategies and identifying those that resonate personally is key to success. Additionally, actively coping with cravings, seeking support, and recognizing the progress you make are key components of the journey towards overcoming cravings. 

Craving change? ALAViDA offers a wide range of support options to help you change your relationship with alcohol and other substances. Access this link to find out more.

About the author:

A. Paul Singh is a virtual health coach at ALAViDA Substance Use, a product of LifeSpeak Inc. He has over 25 years of experience in providing alcohol use counselling and has worked as a therapist in virtually every part of the continuum of care, including detox, outpatient, and residential treatment programs.

Featured speaker at several national conferences, Paul has delivered 1000+ presentations across Canada and the United States on mental health and substance use issues. Paul holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Cornell University, a law degree from New York University School of Law, and a master’s in social work from the University of Chicago.