7 Ways to Handle a Drug or Alcohol Craving

Cravings are one of the hardest parts of recovery. These are intense urges that sometimes seem to come from nowhere and feel irresistible.

However, cravings are not irresistible. Learning to manage cravings is an essential skill for a successful recovery. Here are some strategies for dealing with cravings when they arise.

Accept It
When a craving arises, the first thing to do is to accept that cravings are normal and inevitable. Everyone who has ever had a strong recovery has experienced cravings, and probably still does from time to time. Having a craving doesn’t mean you’re doing anything wrong, or that you’ve failed, or that you’re going to fail. They’re just a normal occurrence. When you’ve been in the habit of using an addictive substance every day, perhaps for years, it’s inevitable that you’ll sometimes feel the urge to use it again. However, trying to suppress the urge or push it away will only make it stronger. Accept that you’re experiencing a craving and don’t feel bad about it, but find a way to deal with it.

Distract Yourself

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Another important thing to remember about cravings is that they don’t last forever. They typically don’t last more than 10 or 15 minutes unless you keep them alive by devoting attention to them. Instead of stewing in a craving, find a way to distract yourself. It could be working, reading, playing a video game, going for a walk, talking to friends, or pretty much anything that requires a significant portion of your concentration. You can’t think about two things at once and you can’t force yourself to not think about something without thinking about that thing. The solution is to find something else to absorb your attention.

Run Away

If a craving doesn’t go away pretty quickly, there’s a good chance something is keeping it alive. It could be a triggering situation, such as being in a place that serves alcohol, being in the company of someone you used to drink with, or just being around someone who stresses you out.

Often, the best thing to do in this situation is to leave. If you’re in the grocery store and having a hard time walking past the liquor aisle, just leave. Parents leave behind carts full of groceries to deal with screaming toddlers, so why not deal with craving in the same way? It’s crucial to know your triggers, both so you can avoid them and so you can recognize them when they appear. Even if you’re not quite sure why your craving persists, a change of setting might solve your problem.

Examine Your Thinking

Our own thoughts can often make cravings more intense than they need to be. When a craving appears, you might start thinking something like, “Oh, a craving, this is awful! I’ll never be able to hold out!” and so on. This only adds to the stress of the craving and makes it more powerful. Instead, accept it, as noted above, and notice what thoughts come up. Remind yourself that cravings happen and they go away and you’ll be fine in a few minutes. Or it could be that craving has arisen as a response to stress unrelated to drugs or alcohol. Maybe you’re angry at someone or you’re feeling overwhelmed at work. Notice what you’re thinking about those situations. Are you thinking someone shouldn’t have done something to you? Are you catastrophizing your work situation? Identifying and pushing back against cognitive distortions can reduce your stress and make cravings less intense.

Get Some Exercise

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Exercise can be a doubly effective way of dealing with cravings. First, it’s an effective distraction, as mentioned above, especially if you do something that requires a lot of skill or something social like a team sport. Second, exercise reduces anxiety and improves your mood. Perhaps more importantly, it improves your emotional regulation and strengthens your willpower. All these benefits come in handy when a craving strikes. Even a walk in your neighbourhood can help you shake off a craving. After 20 minutes, you’ll have forgotten about it completely.

Practice Mindfulness

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When a craving arises, one way to defuse it is to examine it mindfully. Typically, people experience craving as a sort of command coming from some deep level. It’s as if something inside of you shouts “DRINK!” Reflexively, you are likely to respond in one of two ways; either you give in to it, or you resist it and try to push it away.

However, you can also stand back and look at it. What does the craving actually feel like? Where do you feel it? Your chest? Your stomach? Stand back and examine the feeling without judgment and without feeling you have to do one thing or another. Does it move or change? When the feeling starts to subside, let it go. This becomes easier if you practise mindfulness meditation each day. When you get in the habit of observing thoughts and feelings without getting wrapped up in them, you’ll find it easier to ride out even intense feelings like cravings.

Play The Tape
Another great strategy to overcome a craving is to play the tape. Often, when you have cravings, your mind starts playing tricks on you. You start to reminisce about the good times when you used to use. You start thinking things like, “I’ve been sober for a while now; I can probably use just once and be fine.” You can counter these mental tricks by playing the tape. This simply means thinking beyond the satisfaction of that first drink and vividly imagining what comes next–feeling disappointed in yourself, letting down your family, going on a month-long bender and having to start over in recovery, and so on. Remember why you got sober in the first place. This strong image will counter the seductive thoughts of using again.

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